Pay Attention to These 3 Health & Wellness Senior Living Trends as Consumer Preferences Continue to Shift

By Karen Adams, Vice President of Market Intelligence

Perhaps nothing in recent memory has accelerated a change in the lifestyles and preferences of older adults more than the COVID-19 pandemic. Now that we’re in a new (and hopefully final) phase of the virus’s grasp on our world, senior living providers must recognize the change that has occurred in the lives and minds of those who are—and may soon become—Life Plan Community residents.

From our observations of the whole senior living field, and my own interactions with consumers in various situations and marketplaces, we’ve identified three key trends affecting how Life Plan Communities need to serve their members. And they’re all directly related to healthcare services and overall wellness.

This was the broader theme of our most recent webinar, “Integrated Wellness & Prevention: Repositioning Life Plan Communities to Provide What Consumers Really Want.” During the session, we explored how organizations can use the shifting forces affecting our field to reposition the continuum of care to better serve their members—and their missions.

We encourage you to watch the recording of the session if you haven’t yet, and feel free to reach out if it sparks a thought you’d like to discuss. Now, let’s explore the trends.

1) Revisiting assisted living

One of the key discussions from the webinar was how senior living organizations are reevaluating the distribution of health services. This “reckoning” and rebalancing of healthcare service lines has come about as organizations everywhere see skilled nursing beds lay vacant and independent living residents receive de facto assisted living care in their apartments. It’s a trend that my co-panelist Mike Kivov discussed in his own article.

Related to administering assisted living services to existing campus residents, many communities have essentially started their own home care programs. This isn’t necessarily new, but organizations need to understand this change in the utilization of supportive services.

As with every recommendation we make, providers should look at the data. Maintaining data will allow us to recalibrate the mix of accommodations in various care settings, which is necessary to plan for the future. This is as true as ever for organizations looking to expand, and it still applies to communities reevaluating their existing service lines. What’s really going on at your community?

Deciding to downsize to skilled nursing or assisted living may be the right move. However, people essentially bypassing traditional assisted living so they can remain in independent living until they need skilled nursing can affect operational costs.

We’ve recently heard that this trend is causing some organizations to raise concerns about independent living residents spending down on home care services before they need skilled nursing. In some cases, residents’ reliance on benevolent funds and Medicaid is occurring as a result.

So, it all raises the bigger question of determining an organization’s policies about home care utilization and whether a purpose-built assisted living continues to be part of the continuum.

If so, what is really the right product for assisted living? Is it something that more closely resembles independent living residences? Or does an assisted living residence or suite need to be just as attractive as an independent living residence? The answer to both is likely a firm “yes,” but time (and data) will tell.

2) Bandwidth matters

Both within and beyond senior living, telehealth has emerged as a power player in any healthcare service scenario. It’s become not just a pandemic-mandated necessity but also a service that consumers will continue to expect to remain available in the future. For seniors, we’ve heard that residents are using telehealth from within their independent living homes regularly.

So, is your community equipped to handle telehealth?

Effective telehealth video calls require high-definition video and audio, and that means that they require a robust internet connection. And when dozens of residents (spread across various levels of living) make use of telehealth services, your community’s internet network must have the bandwidth to keep up.

Once that foundational element is in place, organizations can also make sure they can support residents’ use of telehealth. That goes far beyond providing instruction documents or sharing how-to videos.

Rather, this telehealth support includes having resident advocates there to guide them on the technology side. In addition, those advocates must be able to assist the doctors on the other side of the screen gather supplemental information such as blood pressure, weight and other vitals and details in between (or instead of) office visits.

With the right mix of network and staff bandwidth, residents will feel more comfortable with telehealth and will use it more often, while not having to worry about arranging for transportation or venturing off campus. In the big picture, residents will feel more in control of their wellness: a key selling point of most Life Plan Communities.

3) Healthy food, healthy life

Studies are indicating that even the most beautiful produce may be falling short, with up to 60 percent having less nutritional value than the same plants did in the past.

Furthermore, emerging research on the science of the gut microbiome shows that a significant portion of the immune system lives in our digestive tract, shining an even brighter light on the importance of nutrient-rich foods for wellness, both preventive and in addressing many chronic illnesses.

Along these lines, an emerging trend in senior living wellness is embracing regenerative farming, which some communities are pioneering together with organizations like the Rodale Institute.

Regenerative farming is “the process of restoring degraded soils using practices based on ecological principles.” In other words, it’s a practice in which farmers use soil management techniques that consider the entire ecological makeup of their operation to improve the quality of the soil and the quality of the crops. Healthier soil equals healthier food.

Related to our field, farms rooted in regenerative practices are appearing on or near campuses of senior living and active adult communities. Those communities partner with the farmers on shared land use and can be assured that the crops grown are as nutritious as possible. The potential of these “agrihoods” touches food quality and the whole dining experience, resident engagement, intergenerational programming and connections with the broader communities in which we’re located.

In a time when people’s awareness of how their health and wellness are inextricably linked to their lifestyle—including the food they eat—and how it’s a topic of many podcasts, cooking shows and other educational programs, we can assume that none of this will be lost on our markets.

“Farm-to-fork” was quickly adopted by many communities, but taking that one step further to knowing the source and quality of our food may become the expectation for tomorrow’s Life Plan Community residents.

Now that your organization is aware of these health and wellness trends—and others discussed in the recent webinar—it’s up to you to determine if and how to act on them. And remember: Look at the data first!

For more articles covering senior housing trends and how providers must adapt to them to continue fulfilling their missions, click here.

To watch the recording of our webinar, “Integrated Wellness and Prevention: Repositioning Life Plan Communities to Provide What Consumers Really Want,” click here.

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