By Karen Adams, VP of Market Intelligence
Senior living trends discussions are exciting, tantalizing and hold promise for new ways of addressing our aging issues. Trends are sirens for existing senior living communities as they plan their futures, rearrange their campuses, and reposition themselves. Trends are the brass rings for new product developers. In any given week we may be presented with a discussion of trends in any of these realms: senior living design, emerging market desires, tools for staying at home, technology, home-based services, villages, co-housing, intergenerational models, and more. Senior living trends point to the search for what is new, what will appeal to large and often unmet markets, and where the future might lie.
But senior living trends frustrate me for two reasons: first, when applied to existing senior living communities they tend to always lead to incremental change; that is, trends are applied to the same model, which is simply tweaked, albeit to varying degrees. Rarely do communities adopt deep change. OK, I get that: deep change takes a while. The second thing is that trends are hard to put any urgency to because they are not provable until multiple organizations begin to adopt them with success. So, that leaves us with this conundrum: How can we disrupt this way of thinking, and how can a fundamental change to our thinking on senior living trends benefit our organizations?
The Market Intelligence Perspective
In market research we are always on the scent of senior living trends because a big part of our role is to identify and measure what consumers want, what they will and won’t “buy,” and hardest of all, what they want but don’t even know they want until it is available. While this is inherently challenging, we have developed processes to glean trends, and when we are listening at our best, we are often given the crystals that eventually collect into whole crystal balls. Listening at our best means that we ask potential consumers and hold strong to the concept that no idea is a bad one, and we try our darndest to identify solutions that might deliver on what we hear.
Many of us remember the days when senior living prospects were least likely to say they would want a “studio” apartment when asked. Yet senior living providers at the time had plenty of studio apartments and said, “But they are full,” until one day, they all said “Help…my vacancy rate has climbed precipitously!” Many of us remember the days when “health clubs” (a.k.a. fitness centers) began to grow for the general (younger) markets. But when recommended for senior living, there was anxiety that “Fitness centers are expensive, and only a few people use them.” More recently, when we wanted to inquire about the ownership and use of smartphones and apps the same hesitation came: “Why are you using important survey space on THAT question?” or “It will be a few years till we have to worry about that.” But this trend moved at the speed of lightning and it wasn’t long before it became something that we don’t even ask anymore because utilization has become almost ubiquitous.
Whatever the refrain, the pushback to the untried and unfamiliar is similar: “We’d have to change. We don’t see a flood of people seeking it. It might not be the next big thing.” People are most comfortable with “trends” when they have already grown into a pattern, but by then, they’re already behind the markets, and behind their competitors.
So, I will use this as my introduction and my warning: many “trends” are still just a whisper; you won’t necessarily know how to implement them, you will be taking a risk, and above all, many new ideas require an investment for the future.
That said, in my experience, some of the best crystal seeds on senior living trends come from two sources: older adults/potential markets themselves; and looking at new things outside of the senior living field.
The Speed of Change
One of the biggest senior living trends to watch is the fact that many desires will emerge much (and I mean much) more quickly than ever before. The aging population is significantly less isolated from the “new” than in the past. We all know that the internet increases everyone’s exposure to information, but it’s deeper than that.
Children of the “Boomers” (and as one of these I have come to very much dislike this term) are less inclined than in the past to run for their independence, buy a home and form families when they graduate from high school or college. Young adults stay with parents longer, come back more frequently, and hang around more in many situations. In 2000, 11 percent of 25-34-year-olds were living at home, in 2010 this increased to 15 percent and just two years later, in 2017 it was 16 percent. The percentages are significantly higher for males than females. his is important because for many in this new generation of parents/elders they are more engaged with early adopters (their children), and therefore become more exposed on a more continuous basis to new tools and new toys.
Take for example, Airbnb. Many people couldn’t believe you could turn your home over to someone temporarily, make some money, travel and rent intriguing places at the other end (i.e. someone else’s yurt, home, tree-house, or just a place in Manhattan on a temporary basis). With this, a child, a niece or nephew fresh out of college seemed to be able to live in Manhattan. How were they doing this? Lo-and-behold, every time they went away, even for a weekend, their apartment was rented out. Their living spaces had become not just an expense, but a source of revenue. And it was not long before we all began to use Airbnb or VRBO when we need a vacation rental, lodging at a conference (that is overbooked all over town because we waited too long to register) or other away-from-home accommodations.
Along these lines, how many apps are discovered over the kitchen table (or counter-bar) with younger family members and friends for using metro systems, ridesharing, communication, food delivery, and a variety of other on-demand services?
The point is that trends in younger age cohorts are transferring to elder markets and doing so much more quickly than in the past. Looking to a variety of tools/apps/on-demand products points to a plethora of potential senior living trends for the future.
Lifelong Learning Programs
Opportunities for continuing education have become well recognized as very important to our elder markets, but too often we have seen incremental or varying degrees in what we commit to in this area with limited classes and lectures, and often catch-as-catch-can affiliations with community resources.
Combine this with the inclusion of Performing Arts Centers in many master plans over the past five to 10 years and we have something akin to Russian dolls with multiple considerations (and trends) nested within:
- Our research has shown repeatedly that interest in life-long learning is significant, a fact that we have known for a while. However, what is becoming increasingly clearer is that prospects and residents expect varied, high-level programming along the lines of Osher Life-Long Learning (OLLI) OLLI is university-based and autonomous, and often difficult to attract to retirement living campuses. So, there are two questions here: 1) What will it take (negotiations, resources) to draw the interest of this and similar-quality programs to our physical locations, and 2), How do we make “going to them” easier and more attractive for our residents? Having programs both coming in and going out is important. Creating linkages with our surrounding communities is very important. But identifying resources, mutual benefits, and the basis for relationships will take time and skills.
- Educational programming can be internal (on-campus presentations) or external. Interest in local resources (arboretums, significant parks, local theaters, museums and other community resources) for more than field trips can be significant especially when guided by professional knowledge and insights. This means more than simply “Sign ‘em up, line ‘em up, and put ‘em on a bus.”
- Performing Arts Centers are a “trend” that has already grown into a “given” in many master planning projects. The vast majority of senior living master plans we see today include some type of event space. These spaces often require a significant investment by the community. There are two critical questions here: 1) Are we programming these new spaces adequately, and 2) Are we integrating tomorrow’s technology, which both provides its own special experience for users and allows for high quality integration of external programming?
A rarely mentioned aspect of state-of-the-art life-long learning is, How do we import high-quality presentations via technology to gain access to a wider array of programming from across the country via live satellite or other means? This could not only broaden programming, perhaps at less cost, but it would also allow us to continue to meet the interests of frailer populations with declining mobility. A 92-year-old emeritus professor does not develop an interest in less-engaging programming just because they become physically limited. Part of the answer may be in the utilization of outside resources.
In particular, streaming external programming opens a world of possibilities without each community needing to develop everything themselves. This makes utilization of the space more frequent (less “dark time”) and provides opportunities for higher-quality programming. Furthermore, having a high-quality space with state-of-the-art technology may make the space attractive to outsiders who may want to utilize it, thereby attracting programming that might not otherwise wish to come to campus.
With these factors in mind for creating lifelong learning opportunities at your community, if all else fails, consider investing to create your own lifelong learning institute (LLI): http://lli.roadscholar.org/starting-and-operating-an-lli
Technology as Part of the Experience
Truly professional “performing arts” centers are expensive to build therefore communities should assure that they can establish a flow of programming that makes them worth the investment rather than having them become glorified auditoriums. This is a skill unto itself and requires continually identifying and negotiating to attract professional quality events such as speakers, classes, live-streamed programs, or high-quality videos.
By now we’ve all heard about and accepted the idea that people are seeking experiences more than possessions, especially in their later years. This lifestyle trend started showing up among “millennials” and Gen Zs in trend watching circles almost two decades ago. The patterns we are seeing are that people are seeking environments that provide good experiences: good sound, comfortable seating and the ability to see the screen from any seat in the house. Technology itself can be part of the experience. Examples of this include events taking place in other parts of the country but shared through technology, the ability to utilize tablets before, during and after events for information retrieval, and even simply the ability to plug in devices at each audience member’s seat to create an interactive experience. For inspiration, “smart” classrooms at universities provide excellent roadmaps.
Finally, investments in all aspects of the programming (staff who can run the technology, negotiate contracts for live/local resources as well as external rather than just physical plants) is where much of the change needs to happen to be able to capitalize on this senior living trend.
Integration with the Broader Community
Community involvement and cooperation is another area for a closer look. In some recent consumer research, when queried about fitness center elements, prospective residents noted that there is a brand-new, state-of-the-art YMCA being built near their community. The question raised by the senior living community was, “Why would we build another, surely less exciting, center on campus?”
There are many reasons for having a fitness center on campus (mainly convenience, i.e. not having to commute, accessibility in inclement weather), but the question is a good one. Is the everything on-site the model for our frailer markets, and therefore do our products dictate in large degree the markets that we attract? Could we gain value from having both on-campus fitness resources and partnerships with the nearby fitness center?
We have talked about integration with the neighborhoods in which we are domiciled for some time, but how much are we dedicating to this concept (and how many of those changes have just been incremental)? Some areas for consideration:
- Transportation: Can we create options for “on-demand” transportation to these off-campus amenities to make access easier and more fun through Uber/Lyft and others (as we know that use of these services has been increasing)?
- Can we integrate activities into our internal, online programming/calendar/apps to encourage ridesharing among residents?
- Can we negotiate off-hours use, discounts and tours or special lectures at museums, arboretums, preserves, etc.?)
With that in mind, it’s clear that today, apps, on-demand transportation, and education are all senior living trends in their own right.
Bikes, Kayaks and…?
We know that many people are staying active longer. Bikes and kayaks have become common images in our marketing materials. There’s a reason for that: people have these toys and they like them. But how committed are we, really, to the markets to whom these activities are important and who want to retain their own gear?
There is always the question of whether these markets will just stay off of our campuses longer because of their fitness, but this is an area that we need to pay attention to one way or another.
We ask about the importance of resources in this area in our consumer research, and consistently find that about 20 percent of participants plan to, or at least would like to retain their involvement in these activities. These prospects are the ones who may seek out “cottages” for the garages that allow storage and easy access. What if all residence types had resources in this area (e.g. storage areas in underground garages)? It is also worth noting that we have seen an increase in communities planning “extreme sports” activities (alright, maybe a little overstated, but within the context of historical programming in the field, maybe not). “Extreme” activities requested by residents have included: ziplining, skydiving, hot-air ballooning and more.
Key planning elements include storage that is secure and easily accessible for equipment, including car racks. We were recently told by potential consumers that bike storage should include a charging station for electric bikes. Wouldn’t people then be able to bike later into increasing frailty if they had this type of resource? (And by the way, charging stations for electric cars are already a given in the minds of the markets. They are noted by potential residents in virtually every session that we conduct). Taking that one step further, we might include a small maintenance and repair space with a bike mount for repairs.
Taking the electric bicycle discussion one step further, there is now “smart clothing” emerging that “augments your every-day strength.” Seismic, also known as “powered clothing,” has a relatively low profile compared to past technologies, and this is likely to improve further. So overall, there are tools emerging that will likely keep hikers hiking and bikers biking longer. This could have some very positive implications for many of our communities.
A very common request in our consumer research is programming for shared toys (bikes, kayaks) and or planned trips to good biking and paddling where the equipment is rented and/or transported for them.
So with these senior living trends, the question becomes: Besides planning for a new generation, by planning for the bicyclists, kayakers, and similar types are we sending a more positive message to our markets at the same time?
Managing Campus Life Using Apps
These tech tools are seeing very high rates of interest in consumer research sessions. This “trend” is already being addressed by some communities but given the experience of future age cohorts with everything from travel to banking, medical services, personal financial management the quality, capacity, and consistency needs to be high.
Recent reports indicate the general population is becoming increasingly resistant to working through people; it is simply faster and more convenient to utilize online tools that provide immediate access to the information we need. Phone hold times are also eliminated. And by the way, in-app integration of a point-of-service rating/comment system should provide efficient resident satisfaction tools. Finally, these apps could be used for those ride-sharing programs to off-campus resources.
Underground or Under-building Parking
Where to put your car may seem a more mundane element, but it’s a senior living trend worth noting. Demand for this has been growing and people are willing to pay for it. If you do not have it and a competitor down the road puts it in, it could affect you. It is about both weather and convenience. In our offices, we have wondered if an investment should be made in the costs of underground structures. With that in mind, we think, how far off are driverless cars, which can be summoned when needed? Might under-building designs where that space can be converted to other uses in the future be more practical? At any rate, and in the meantime, expect demand in this area, and expect to see your colleagues in your market area adding it if at all possible.
Senior Living Trends, in Summary:
- New interests, desires and expectations will continue to emerge at a continually accelerated rate.
- We need to be prepared to determine which senior living trends warrant investment and if so, choose to respond with real change rather than just incremental shifts.
- Lifelong learning is demanding significant attention and investment in programs that are robust and exciting. This means we need new skillsets in our organizations that include planning (identifying, organizing), technical skills, and negotiating (many external resources will have licensing and fee requirements).
- “Performing Arts Centers,” already a focus of many new developments, master plans, and remodels, should be more than glorified auditoriums. They should facilitate and host robust programming.
- Personal/sports/activities (biking, kayaking, hiking) are important to emerging markets. By accommodating them (in a variety of ways) we send a different message to the markets and may thereby shift who we attract.
- Apps that manage life on a campus/in a community reflect how we have all begun to manage our daily lives. We can access the information we need to make decisions more quickly and efficiently, make our choices and register/reserve/schedule/communicate. We can conduct our business at any time of the day at our convenience. We can coordinate with others, without a middle-person (front-desk), which will result in people taking on many functions that have previously depended on staff or simply did not happen (e.g. ridesharing, sharing of toys (bikes, boats and other things), and likely even some informal caregiving).
If you’re interested in gaining even more insight on senior living trends, we invite you to download our eBook, “Senior Housing Trends,” which has been updated for 2019. Simply click here to download your free copy!