Death of the Continuing Care Retirement Community … or CCRC

By Tom Mann, Principal, Executive Vice President

Summit Vista Life Plan Community

Today’s communities like Summit Vista defy the stereotypes of continuing care retirement communities.

I am about to make myself some enemies. At Love & Company, we believe that marketing your retirement community as Continuing Care Retirement Community is a very poor decision (note: there are rare exceptions to this rule but I won’t get into that today). In fact, I would put as much distance between my retirement community and the term “continuing care retirement community” as possible. Why?

Semantics are important. They shape how your staff interacts with your clients. They also shape your customers’ opinion of your offering — and how they feel about themselves. Your job is to make them feel good about themselves in relation to your product.

Less than 3% of the age and income qualified population will ever move into a Continuing Care Retirement Community. “Why is there such a huge gap between the wonderful truth of what Continuing Care Retirement Communities (CCRCs) are . . . and what the general public perceives them to be?”

What we know:
Today’s modern-day continuing care retirement community is an extraordinary social invention. Residents of CCRCs often say, “I should have done this years ago.”  If you are over 70, there is no denying that a continuing care retirement community can help you avoid the trappings of social isolation that are hard-wired into your house in the suburbs. Anyone who has ever worked in the industry has seen the wonderful transformations that people make as they rediscover their social side.

What the public thinks:
What’s the number one objection retirement community sales people hear from prospects? “I’m just not ready for THIS  kind of living.” Most often, this statement is coming from a senior who is over the age of 80! Sadly, most people think “CCRCs” or “Lifecare Communities” are assisted living, nursing homes or old folks’ homes in disguise. What breaks my heart is that this perception prevents seniors from enjoying both the social and medical support that would dramatically improve their lives today. Worse yet, by waiting, your potential resident dramatically lowers their chances of getting into a truly “independent setting” in the future. The problem then compounds … moving when you HAVE TO, as opposed to moving by choice, significantly lowers the odds of successful transition.

What we know:
The retirement community industry has put its foot in its mouth. After all, what do you hear when someone says, “CONTINUING CARE?” When people hear “continuing care” they view it as inevitable that they will cycle through the full system . . . in their minds they think, that’s why they (the operators) call it “continuing care.”  We know that the vast majority of people will not need the higher levels of care available in continuing care retirement communities. Yes, it’s valuable if your retirement community offers these higher levels of care but you need to be very, very subtle about how you portray these services.

Who wouldn’t want to avoid expensive assisted living and nursing care?  More importantly, who wants to live in a nursing home? This huge perception gap between what today’s CCRC communities really are, and what the public thinks they are is keeping the vast majority of the people (96%+) away from an incredibly rich lifestyle.

Notes from the field:

  • Modern-day Continuing Care Retirement Communities are awesome.

After working with retirement communities for over two decades, I say this for two reasons. One, seniors who move into a continuing care retirement community have more social interaction . . . more social interaction equals happier people. Research has shown that the active, social lifestyle found in modern-day continuing care retirement communities helps to reduce the risk of disease and disability. By the way, dining is a HUGE component of this – nutritious, balanced meals are very often not the norm for seniors living alone. Not to mention, the benefits of dining with friends.

Two, seniors who move into a CCRC are able to practice preventative medical care rather than reactive care. This, my friends, is a HUGE advantage! For example, would you rather improve your balance through exercise or spend months recovering from a broken hip? My parents moved into a CCRC (Charlestown Retirement Community) and it turned out to be one of the smartest moves they ever could have made.

  • The terms “Continuing Care Retirement Community” and “Lifecare Retirement Community” should be banned from your sales person’s vocabulary.

Look carefully at these two terms:
•  “Continuing Care Retirement Community” – hmmm, this is the place I go for “Continuous Care.”  Sounds a lot like “Skilled Nursing Care.” The industry throws around a confusing array of terms and acronyms, most of which are medically related, and none of which the general public understands. Mudding the situation even further are the distinctions between type A, B, and C continuing care retirement communities that few people in the industry, let alone the general public, understand. And all reinforcing negative perceptions.
• “LifeCare Retirement Community” – am I going to need care for the rest of my life? Do I need “Life Support?” Clearly, my neighbors will be sickly if I move in here. I can’t wait to share dinner with a guy in a wheelchair drooling (sorry, but it’s what the customer is thinking).

Sadly, the industry suffers from murky, medical sounding terms and definitions (in fact, in many cases, there are purposeful “misuses” of terminology designed to confuse the customer, ie. the assisted living facility that wants to sound like a CCRC). Here’s an example of what the today’s top 3 Google internet listings were for term “life care”:

LIFE EVENT MANAGEMENT SERVICES : LIFECARE is the nation’s premier provider of human resources work and family benefits. Our services include child care and adult care counseling, …

Life Care Centers of America provides skilled nursing homes, assisted living, long term care, retirement, home care, and Alzheimer’s centers to help you and …

LifeCare Hospitals, national healthcare service / hospitals for long-term acute care (LTAC).

None of these sound like a fun place to live.

Both “continuing care”  and “lifecare” are infused with medical, nursing home connotations that make the customer sound and feel weak. Put yourself in your customers’ shoes, do you want to look and sound weak in front of your friends and family?

  • The industry has to move from a “nurse mentality” to a “service” mentality.

And it can’t just be our words (think of the subtle message your community’s shuttle bus currently offers, if you’re a potential resident do you want to arrive on the scene in a bus that could easily be confused for your county’s senior center bus? Or better yet, one of Jerry’s kids? Wouldn’t you prefer a nice sedan or a trolley with no community labeling?

Now, I hear some of the more sophisticated marketers retort, “yes, but we don’t use this language in our marketing!” You don’t? Take a look at your contracts, the directories you’re advertising your retirement communities in, and the associations you belong to.

  • Applying an industry label doesn’t help the customer feel better about your community or themselves.

Today’s retirement community offerings are not your father’s Oldsmobile.  By calling our retirement communities a CCRC we are putting the negatives first. As Scott Bedbury, the genius behind Nike and Starbucks once said, “Brands, like coffee beans, are highly sensitive sponges that absorb whatever is around them. And they don’t discriminate between the good, the bad, and the ugly.” There have been plenty of ugly CCRCs in the last 25 years, do you want that association?

Those of us in marketing have often said, “the customers’ house is our biggest competition.” The truth is that our biggest competition is the perceived safety that their house represents vs. the negative perceptions about CCRCs.  We need to distance ourselves from these negative perceptions by dropping the old labels and visuals queues (CCRC accreditation logos, shuttle buses, etc.), and then by associating fun, exciting visuals and descriptions. Today’s retirement communities ARE different.

Today’s sophisticated retiree is looking to protect their quality of life and their financial health. We need to eliminate the excuse, “I’m just not ready for THAT style of living.” It’s time to rethink our message and reach out for a new identity.

Editor’s Note: This blog originally was posted in our Mature Market Experts blog (before LeadingAge wisely recommended to association members that they start using the term Life Plan Communities) which we are now migrating to this current site.

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