Developing the Life Plan Community of the Future

By Rob Love, President/CEO

I recently had the honor of participating in a panel discussion with several senior living thought leaders at the LeadingAge conference in Denver. The presentation was very well received, and I thought it would be good to share the main ideas the team shared with those of you that were not able to attend either the conference or the presentation.

Our overall focus was on how to think about developing the Life Plan Community of the future. Joining me on the panel were Mark Beggs, President and CEO of Edenwald; Amy Castleberry, a Managing Director at Ziegler; Brenda Schreiber, Senior Vice President, Marketing, at Mather; Toby Shea, Founding Principal at OnePoint Partners; and Margaret Yu, Director of Client Experience at RLPS Architects.

Our Market Is Growing Rapidly!

Amy Castleberry led off the discussion with highlights of changes in the demographics of the senior population over the coming decade. By 2030, all the boomers will have reached age 65, and the population of adults age 75+ will increase by 11.7 million (45%) between 2022 and 2032. And by 2033, seniors will be more affluent than they are today, with far more higher income households.

On a cautionary note, Amy also noted that half of all states and nearly 75% of all counties experienced more deaths than births between July 1, 2020, and June 30, 2021. So, while the senior population is increasing dramatically, our overall population is remaining flat. This means there will be continuing challenges finding staff to support our aging population in the years ahead.

Find a Niche

Responding to the question, “What do boomers want?” I shared that there is no one way to answer that question. Boomers have a broad range of interests and priorities, and they do look at their retirement years differently from previous generations. As a field, to meet the needs and expectations of the boomer market, senior living needs to evolve from “Here’s what we will do for you”—i.e., providing the same core services to all residents—to asking the more individualized question, “What can we do for you?”

With the tremendous growth in the market depth Amy referenced, there is not only the opportunity but also the need for our communities to find and develop unique niches that they can own in their markets. This will enable our field to capture a greater share of the overall senior living population. Such a trend is well underway with the strong consumer interest in University Retirement Communities (URCs™) and the development of niche communities like Enso Village, which is being developed in partnership with the Kendal Corporation and the San Francisco Zen Center.

Engage Your Residents in Planning

For an existing community looking to find a strong niche in its market, it’s important to involve your residents in the process. Every community already has some facets of uniqueness among its resident base, and we need to draw that out and explore which things we can capitalize on for future growth.

Mark Beggs shared his experience planning an upcoming expansion at Edenwald. Research and conversations with residents turned up a strong interest in lifelong learning. With Edenwald’s location immediately adjacent to Goucher College, the community will be partnering with Goucher to transition Edenwald into a full URC™, designing an expansion that integrates the community into Goucher’s campus.

As Mark shared, “Anything we do new must improve the lives of current residents. We must demonstrate to residents what the changes mean to them. If we can’t demonstrate how it improves the experience for the existing community members, then it does not work.”

Slim Down Healthcare

Amy shared that, for the last 40 new Life Plan Communities, about two-thirds did not include any skilled nursing beds. Instead, some relied on the fact that many states now license assisted living to provide higher acuity care, while others develop partnerships with existing skilled nursing providers.

Planning just how many assisted living, memory care or other healthcare beds to add, though, is an evolving science that requires a great deal of careful thought. Toby Shea shared that many actuarial projections are based on past practices, not necessarily current ones. The significant increase in providing in-residence healthcare services to independent living residents limits the relevance of many historical metrics. Figuring out ratios of independent living residents to healthcare beds is now the second part of the equation. The first part is understanding present and future acuity levels and how/where we will serve them. With that information in hand, then the numbers can be identified.

New Possibilities in Community Development

As we plan for the future, Margaret Yu shared examples of several types of non-traditional Life Plan Communities that our organizations could consider developing as they look for new growth opportunities. These included:

  • Active adult/55+ communities that focus on lifestyle, but can also tie into a community’s healthcare services, helping to create more demand for those services in the future. Such communities could be adjacent to the “mothership,” or could be separate from it.
  • “Downtown” living in walkable, more urban areas. Some organizations are redeveloping existing older buildings into satellite communities in more intergenerational settings.
  • Affordable housing, either on campus or in other settings, that can extend an organization’s mission to serve more aging adults
  • URCs™, particularly when done in partnership with colleges and universities that may be facing financial challenges and are looking to create new revenue sources
  • Multi-generational communities that serve more than just seniors, offering the services our communities typically provide to a broader segment of the population

Mather’s Planning Philosophy

Building on the thoughts shared by the other presenters, Brenda Schreiber shared insights on Mather’s philosophy of growth. Of course, Mather’s development team does a thorough analysis of potential markets to determine that there is (and will be) sufficient demand for its communities. Beyond that, Brenda noted that Mather has always been cautious in planning healthcare beds by developing smaller units to ensure healthcare is rightsized from the start. As a result, Mather communities typically have strong healthcare census even today.

Mather also is committed to piloting programs or initiatives that are designed to address a need or enhance a service. Once the Mather team sees positive results from the pilot, then they invest in rolling programs and services out to additional communities.

Lastly, Brenda shared that—for future growth—Mather is exploring next generation boutique models that may not have skilled nursing. It also is placing an increased focus on intergenerational experiences and integration with the greater community to create stronger connections and engagement for residents. For example, The Mather in Tysons (VA) will include a community park, retail space and three acres of garden space, as well as being close to transportation, shopping and restaurants.

Plan from a Position of Strength!

One thing that all presenters emphasized was that you can’t wait until there is a census or revenue problem to start planning how to position your community for the future. Communities with high census levels and large wait lists may think they are in great shape, but the reality is that communities cannot rest on their laurels—especially today. If you wait until census drops into the mid 80%s to start the reinvention process, you will be missing tens of millions of dollars of entrance fees, and millions of dollars of monthly fees, that could have been invested in planning a stronger future.

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