In senior living, we’ve all heard the numbers. We know that the senior population is booming (pun intended), and that our organizations have an opportunity to serve a much greater number of people. But what most senior living leaders don’t realize is just how different that population is going to look from how it does today. By 2040, there will be about 44 million more adults age 65+ than there were in 2022. Of those, more than half will be a person of color. The baby boomer generation will be the last in which people of color are a minority of the older population.
This change in demographics presents a major challenge to senior living organizations, which for decades have served an almost entirely monochromatic population. To effectively grow and extend their mission into serving new market segments, senior living leaders need to fully understand what inclusion and equity really mean, and how to create a truly inclusive culture. Only then will our field be prepared to serve the growing demographic of aging Americans. And for those organizations that don’t adapt, they will find themselves facing the challenge of serving a smaller portion of the market, not a larger one.
Watch the webinar recording to learn more about how developing a strong culture of inclusion can help prepare your organization to serve a more diverse market.
In our February 15, 2024 webinar, W Lawson Company Founder and CEO Marvell Adams, Jr. and Love & Company President/CEO Rob Love shared their insights on what developing a culture of equity and inclusion really means in our webinar, “Inclusion as an Essential Growth Strategy.”
What Is a Culture of Inclusion?
Over the past decade, a significant number of senior living organizations have begun developing diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs. For some, the primary goal has been to attract more residents of color. Although race is certainly a piece of the DEI puzzle, it’s only one of many. Our communities are already segregating people by age, so changing that paradigm can be one element of an inclusion program. Many communities also have an opportunity to better serve the LGBTQ population as well.
My focus is on inclusion, on creating a sense of welcome that someone—whether a resident or a staff member—truly feels they belong in your community. Inclusion creates diversity, not the other way around. I like to refer to inclusion as “the big tent.” It’s a growth strategy, enabling organizations to invite more people into their tent. At the end of the day, inclusion is about welcoming more individuals to your community.
What we in senior living need to understand and embrace is that—in today’s world—people have so many choices as to where to live or where to work. If they don’t feel welcome, they won’t come to your community. That’s what inclusion is all about—making people feel they belong.
How to Develop a Culture of Inclusion
Developing a culture of inclusion is not easy. It’s not like ordering a new CRM or rolling out a new menu, and it’s not a “program” you can implement over a short period of time. It’s a pervasive thing that takes a lot of devotion over a long period of time.
Lily Zheng (they/them), the author of DEI Deconstructed: Your No-Nonsense Guide to Doing the Work and Doing It Right and Reconstructing DEI: A Practitioner’sWorkbook, offers great guidance on how to think about and put together a culture of equity and inclusion. Zheng underscores the critical role of trust and makes the strong case that efforts to become more inclusive will not be successful if the leadership of the organization does not have the trust of the stakeholders, such as residents and staff. If you start and stop, or don’t do things well, you won’t earn trust and it won’t be successful.
This is why I founded my company W Lawson to increase the number of leaders that are aware of the implications that certain decisions can have, and know how to dismantle obstacles to inclusion that may already be in place. Leaders need to look carefully at their organization’s policies to be sure they don’t create barriers to inclusion. Let me share an example of what I mean.
Many organizations do drug testing before they hire someone. But what if your community is in Maryland, the District of Columbia or another state where recreational use of marijuana is legal? You need to ask, “What is the rationale for testing for cannabis?” By drug testing, are you artificially reducing the size of your potential workforce? For this very reason, even many faith-based organizations in Colorado, another state where recreational cannabis is legal, have stopped drug testing for cannabis. Also, many organizations test before hiring, but then don’t test again. What kind of statement does that make to staff about the organization’s leadership and commitment? And keep in mind, this isn’t about judging right or wrong when it comes to drug testing. It’s about asking the question: What is our goal in maintaining a drug testing program? If the answer is to protect residents and ensure a safe workplace, then it’s our responsibility as leaders to ensure our policies prevent impairment. And a drug testing policy that tests only at the point of pre-employment does not meet this goal. So, the next question is: Why do we have the policy if it doesn’t ensure a work environment free of impairment?
The Benefits of Inclusion
There are many benefits of a strong inclusion program. Your community becomes more attractive to a broader base of potential residents, not just the typical monochromatic group that most senior living communities serve today. And you become more attractive to prospective workers as well. In fact, organizations that have strong DEI cultures are shown to have stronger retention and better recruitment.
There’s not always a direct link between implementing a DEI program and retention and recruiting; It doesn’t “just happen.” People apply for a job based on some sort of invitation. Perhaps they saw an ad you placed online, or perhaps a friend told them about the position. The key question then becomes, when they first come in contact with the organization, do they feel welcome? People tend to stay where they feel included, and where they feel they belong. When staff don’t stay, it’s because they no longer feel they belong there. A number of today’s workforce challenges are due to care staff realizing that they have more career choices than they’ve ever had before. They need a sense of belonging to want to stay somewhere.
The Longevity + Inclusion Alliance Fellows Program
What’s proven to work in building effective DEI programs is to build a cohort of individuals dedicated to making a difference, and then start building another one. The cohorts start to work together to enact change. That’s what I’m doing with W Lawson’s Longevity + Inclusion Alliance Fellows Program. By starting the Fellows program, we are working to create leaders that have a clearer vision of how to create a more inclusive environment, gain and/or improve their cultural competence in understanding other lived experiences, and join a growing cohort of leaders looking to create equity in aging. You can learn more about the Fellows program here.
We will be holding an inclusion retreat with our current cohort class on April 18 and 19, and I’m excited to share that Lily Zheng, the author I referenced earlier, will be one of our speakers. We will be opening the retreat to a limited number of people from outside the Fellows program, so please reach out to me if you’d like to learn more.
An Exciting Future
I’m really optimistic about the potential that serving a more diverse aging population has for our organizations. We are seeing a lot of movement toward creating intergenerational and middle-income communities that will help meet this need. The next step is laying a foundation from which our existing Life Plan Communities and other senior living organizations can begin to serve the broader population in the years ahead.