Sprucing up outdated models of senior living with elements of wellness and hospitality is like “putting lipstick on a pig.” What we need is a revolution.
This was my thought after attending the LeadingAge Conference in San Diego this fall. LeadingAge, the association of nonprofit providers of aging services, has members from the entire spectrum of senior living—comprehensive life plan communities, assisted living communities, memory care facilities and nursing homes. I had come to learn about everything “Aging Well”—a trend recognized by Insider’s Guide to Spas, American Spa, and the Global Wellness Institute.
“Wellness” and “hospitality” infiltrated every corner of LeadingAge—from facility design, to food and beverage, to technology. Following are some of the trends I uncovered that are influencing progressive senior living. They offer a new beginning, not the beginning of the end.
“Senior Living design is twenty years behind hotel and resorts . . . but the Baby Boomers are creating a disruption.”—Peter Anderson
Wellness Begins with Environment
Developers in senior living are slowly moving away from the sterile environments that have defined the industry. While the architects and design firms I spoke with on the LeadingAge show floor were touting the power of design to contribute to wellbeing, many seemed stuck in traditional healthcare-influenced models.
“Senior Living design is twenty years behind hotel and resorts. We have historically ‘warehoused’ the elderly, but the Baby Boomers are creating a disruption,” said Peter Anderson, principal of Anderson & Associates and a speaker at the LeadingAge Conference. Disruptions that focus away from the transactional care-centric models targeting later-in-life seniors and more towards experience and lifestyle-rich environments for the 55-plus demographic.The panel, entitled Connecting the Dots: The Intersection of Wellness and the Outdoors, focused on the benefits of biophilic design, which incorporates natural elements, sunlight, and vegetation into a space.
Professionally run salons and spas have become a competitive advantage for upscale senior living. I interviewed John Polatz, the CEO and co-founder of PS Salon & Spa, at LeadingAge. The company operates more than 1,000 salons and spas inside senior living facilities, growing at a rate of 25 facilities per month. Polatz told me that high-end clients (approximately 20 percent) want full-service salons, spas, and “wellness suites,” along with common areas for meditation, fitness, swim lounges, and more.
Functional & Integrative Medicine
Historically, senior living has been driven by conventional medicine. New generation facilities are integrating functional and integrative medicine—which address the root cause of disease. Treatments include conventional pathways along with “alternative” treatments like acupuncture, massage, and nutritional supplementation.
Wellpoint Community, a new mixed-use development in Huntsville, Alabama, will combine senior living with leading-edge medical care, wellness programming, and hospitality services. The 20-acre planned community will integrate a comprehensive preventive medical approach, spa services, and complementary treatments like halotherapy, cryotherapy, and meditation.
“It’s the coupling of hospitality and healthcare that’s so unique. We don’t want to make this about healthcare and healthcare services alone, but extending to active engagement and living well, about having the supportive services available as needed but not being defined by them,” says Joseph McCarron, CEO and Founder of Wellpoint.
“Stereotypical stodgy dining rooms that open at 5:00 p.m. and close at 7:30 p.m.? Limited, set menus filled with low-sodium, batch-cooked, scoop-and-plate comfort foods? That’s just not how seniors—or progressive dining operators working to revolutionize senior-living foodservice—roll anymore.” -5 Trends in Senior Living Foodservice, Food Service & Equipment
On the LeadingAge show floor, large food service companies that provide meal delivery systems and food service were offering healthy meals to entice attendees to their booths. The small bites, smoothies, and green juices featured fresh, local ingredients. These companies offering institutionalized food service will need more than good marketing to undergo the quantum shift necessary to satisfy the discerning needs of Boomers.
The 65,000-square-foot Via Wellness Center in the new Wellpoint Community will feature a chef-driven restaurant, culinary garden, and cooking school. Wellpoint partnered with Hutchinson Consulting for best-in-class hospitality consulting and talent. Hutchinson’s principals pioneered contemporary spa cuisine for iconic wellness destinations such as Miraval and Hilton Head Health. Secondarily, Wellpoint is partnering with Cerner to operate the Via Wellness Center’s medical and wellness integrative programming.
The Race for Caregivers
Senior living is experiencing a labor shortage not unlike the spa industry. You have heard the statistics on the “Silver Tsunami”: Roughly 10,000 baby boomers will reach retirement age every day from 2011 through 2030 (Source: Pew Research Center.) The 65-plus age group has grown by 58 percent over the past 30 years. By 2050, more than one in five Americans will be 65 years old or older. (Source: U.S. Census Bureau.)
The demand for more progressive retirement communities is skyrocketing. Where will we find the caregivers to service these facilities?
The Trump Administration’s aggressive anti-immigration agenda is only making things worse, according to Diane Doster, CEO of Project Relevance and co-chair of the Global Wellness Institute’s Dying Well Initiative. “Now more than ever, we need cultures of care and wellbeing for both sides of the equation. About a quarter of the best immigrant CarePros have left the country for friendlier waters. Along with the labor shortage, we have escalating rates of dementia, chronic disease, and opiate addiction that demand even higher levels of care.”
In a preemptive move to attract and maintain talent to staff their 10 high-end properties, Vi Life Plan Communities has made employee selection and retention a primary focus. Vi was founded by Penny Pritzker, the daughter of Hyatt founder Jay Pritzker and former Secretary of Commerce for the Obama Administration. The hospitality-forward company received the “Great Place to Work” designation in 2018 and 2019 and has won several awards for superior employee training and development.
According to the LeadingAge Ziegler LZ 200 Report, half of senior living facilities use social connectedness/resident engagement technology. Many technology companies exhibiting at LeadingAge sold the promise of “whole person wellness”—defining it as the integration of multiple, interrelated areas of a person’s life. Steve Shields, CEO of Action Pact Holdings LLC, a senior living consulting, development, and design company, describes this as “a navigation system that organizes the services around the person, traverses with them through the continuum, and collects data along the way so that each person is able to have a more holistic journey through that continuum.”
Senior Living facilities will also be incubators for new medical and wellness technologies. Joe McCarron envisions Wellpoint Community as a “living lab that will capture health and longevity metrics and correlate findings to programming, biometrics, and wellness progression.” Wellpoint Community in Huntsville plans to collaborate with neighboring business and industry stakeholders such as HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology on evidence-based research to improve health and wellbeing. “We provide a wide-open opportunity to leverage “Best in Class” stakeholders and their capabilities surrounding innovations in age tech,” said McCarron. “We will undoubtedly be a tremendous population health accelerator.”
The Affordability Gap
While there appear to be plenty of retirement options in premiere locations for affluent retirees, the options for most American seniors involve compromise and uncertainty. A recent survey of more than 2,700 older adults and caregivers by Driving Towards Age-Friendly Care for the Future captures the challenges. More than 40 percent of survey respondents think that depression is an inevitable part of aging—an astonishing statistic! Access to quality care will be key to changing that perception.
Much like luxury spas, upscale senior living facilities are expensive to design, staff, and operate. I raised the question of affordability to McCarron: “The affordability gap is a huge issue. We recognize it as a need and an opportunity. We focus on a high socio-economic market because of the capital hurdles we confront. The cost of specialty buildings and providing the amenities dictates premium costs and charge structures. As we evolve, we plan to open the Via Wellness Center to surrounding communities with membership opportunities that will offer some of the more affordable integration we are hoping to achieve.”
Opening access to the larger community is one solution to the affordability gap. However, cost of care will remain a huge issue.
The “multigenerational community” is a dramatic shift in the senior living model. Rather than the typical senior-siloed community, a multigenerational community mixes all ages and provides programming to accommodate their varied needs. Examples of multigenerational communities are Norterre, a $60-million multigenerational wellness community in Liberty, Missouri, and Wellpoint with their Enterprise Center—a co-working and event-planning space that will foster business incubation and mentorship.
The Interaction between generations is a true win-win—youngsters benefit from senior’s wisdom; seniors find a sense of purpose and fulfillment by sharing their knowledge. “Seniors are not looking to retire and play golf. They want to be productive and give back. ‘Encore professionals’ want to do something meaningful, to reinvent themselves and share their life experiences,” said McCarron.
Multigenerational Life Plan communities must also create environments that encourage socialization and foster opportunities for personal connections. A recent study showed that cognitive decline was 70 percent lower in those who were frequently social than those who were more isolated. Beyond meeting basic health and housing needs, facilities of the future will help residents find purpose and intention that will lead to their fulfillment.
Similar to the spa industry in the early 1990’s, the new definition of senior living is in its infancy. As senior silos are being replaced with amenity-rich, resort-style communities where hospitality and engagement with the broader community are key, we will see different types of products spinning off and evolving into specific solutions for residents’ different needs.
The Jimmy Buffet-affiliated Latitude Margaritaville retirement community is a case in point for just how dramatically the paradigm will continue to shift. The two 55-plus, independent living resorts in Florida and South Carolina feature tiki huts, a pet spa, live entertainment, and poolside bars. This concept perfectly suits the “Cheeseburger in Paradise” retirement set, as the thousands on the waiting list attest. To each their own definition of aging well!
This past December, LeadingAge led #FreeFromAgeism, a week-long campaign to build awareness and promote an “America Freed from Ageism.” There are many problems in search of solutions. But whatever the challenges, the focus on healthy aging and fight against ageism are positive trends. The revolution is definitely underway.