The Importance of Wellness in Marketing Life Plan Communities

Listen to Love & Company’s latest podcast or read the transcription below! Join Chris Carruthers, VP of Health Services Marketing as she discusses the importance of wellness in marketing Life Plan Communities with Colin Milner, CEO of the International Council on Active Aging (ICAA).

CC: Thank you for joining us today for the Love & Company Leaders’ Board podcast on the importance of marketing wellness in Life Plan Communities. I am Chris Carruthers, Vice President of Health Services Marketing and I am privileged to have Colin Milner with me today. Colin is the CEO of the International Council on Active Aging (ICAA) and a founder of the active-aging Industry in North America. He is also a leading authority on the health and well-being of the older adult, and for the past six years, the World Economic Forum has invited him to serve on its Network of Global Agenda Councils, recognizing him as one of “the most innovative and influential minds” in the world on aging-related topics. Welcome, Colin, thank you. Would you like to take a few minutes to talk about the ICAA, please?

CM: Sure, the International Council on Active Aging, or ICAA, is a professional association that is now celebrating 15-and-a-half years of being in business. We have a very simple goal, and that is: how do we help change the way we age? Now, of course, changing the way we age then incorporates everything, so it then moves from a simple goal to a very complex, systematic format to do that. What we do, is we provide education, information, resources and tools to help people age well, and at the heart of that is our wellness model, our seven dimensions of wellness that enable us to provide that education to help people to do a better job in their communities. I’m glad that we’re speaking about Life Plan Communities today because they are actually the most active group within the ICAA.

CC: Perfect! Let’s talk a little bit about why wellness is important, and why it’s important now.

CM: Well, wellness is a process by which people are able to make more informed decisions about their health and well-being, and to be one with themselves. And why is it important now and why is it important in these communities is really because on a local level, we have come to the realization that we’re unable to sustain our healthcare given the current format and the way that society is structured around, and that the responsibility is becoming more and more that of the individual to take care of themselves. Wellness is, of course, one of the ways of being able to live a better quality life and a more engaged life, and as society begins to put the onus in you instead of government, in respect of the politicians out there, and as healthcare costs continue to rise and we look to try and minimize those, we see a greater emphasis on wellness on a societal level. We’ve actually seen over the last 10 years, the level of engagement within the senior living communities and Life Plan Communities skyrocket–and I mean skyrocket–especially in the last five years.

CC: I love that. I love the comment you made about a more engaged life, because people living in their homes sometimes do not have that potential anymore and that relates to how someone in marketing or a salesperson can relate what they have to offer as to what they might have enjoyed in their home and can no longer be part of. Can you tell me how the adoption of wellness changes over the years, and are we there yet?

CM: You know, the adoption of wellness has changed significantly over the years. 30 years ago, when I first started about 35 years ago, I was run out of communities that I was coming in and telling about fitness, and I was almost looked at as the anti-Christ because people would say that fitness would kill their residents, where the reality is that it’s completely the opposite. Inactivity is what leads to many unfortunate deaths year in and year out. Now, from that time to today, where over 90 percent of CEOs that ICAA has surveyed look at wellness now as a key strategy for their business growth moving forward. It’s night and day, completely different. The other thing that we have seen over the last five years, especially, is a lot of stand-alone wellness centers being developed on properties. Years ago it used to be that you had donated equipment in a small apartment–and you still do in some communities that aren’t completely committed to the wellness area–and then it went from not being donated equipment to purchased equipment, and how exciting was that? And then all of a sudden, they knocked down one wall and it was two apartments, three apartments and then it became an actual center, and now the standalone center. So it has completely morphed over the last ten years, but more so the last five. Now it is basically standard fare as they say.

CC: So, Colin, when you mentioned standalone, are you meaning that this is standalone from the building or standalone within the walls of a Life Plan Community?

CM: So, it’s basically part of the overall Life Plan Community, but it is its own building, or its own center. Now, that center may be connected by a long hallway because of weather, but it is literally its own entity.

CC: Right. With the strategy behind it, I like that. So, I know how you’re going to answer this question, but I think I’d like to hear you explain, how important is wellness to a community’s success?

CM: You know, that’s a really good question because we get asked that all the time. There’s two ways of really looking at that. There’s looking at the return on investment, and there’s looking at basically just simply being a community that someone wants to move into and that someone feels that it is vibrant and full of life, where they want to live. So, from a return on investment standpoint, the ICAA, who has done wellness benchmarks for the last few years and the numbers are pretty straight-forward in that, if you invest in your wellness centers on your properties or wellness on your properties, you’re going to get a great return on investment. You’re going to have residents–let’s use as an example, independent living–that will actually stay independent and living on the property and more engaged for two years longer than your average resident. So, the numbers are pretty straightforward. If I’m in a rental property and I have a person who is paying four thousand dollars a month and that’s 48,000-98,000 dollars every two years, and I have a 10 percent turn over and I can prevent that for two years, then that’s an awful lot of potential revenue. Now, that’s just one side of the equation. The other side is that we’re in the process of going through a morphing process in society where people realize that today they have much more potential within them than they have ever had before, and they’re looking for how they are actually going to fulfill that potential. If your property is not one that is helping to fulfill it, you may just not be of interest to them. There’s always going to be a need for care, but there is a much greater need for people to who just simply want to live and live life to the fullest. So, we tend to serve a very small segment of the market, and it’s becoming older and older and more frail and acute where the issues are coming in for a shorter period of time as opposed to addressing the larger segment of the market who’s just simply wanting to embrace that newly found potential out there. That’s what wellness can do for a community.

CC: I like that because all the communities that we typically work with want that younger senior in their building, and this gives them a reason to really want to move. But again, I can see how it can also benefit that more older, frail, older seniors too because it doesn’t mean that just because they’re older they can’t benefit from a lot of your wellness opportunities as well.

CM: You know, there are people who are running marathons at the age of 100. There are people who are running triathlons in their 80s. Now, those are extreme examples and people say, “Well, I’m not going to be like that” well no, you’re probably not–in fact, young you’re probably not like that either–but what it shows you is what our potential actually is; what we’re physically capable of. Then the question is where from where you are now compared to that extreme do you want to sit? And what do you have to do to get there, and how is that going to then impact their life course, the choices they make, the opportunities that they have to live the best life possible? That’s really where we’re at today in society; we ask, “How do I make the most out of my remaining years?

CC: Wonderful! You’re inspiring me already to just get up and run outside right now!

CM: Well that’s good–go!

CC: (chuckles) I’ll be right back! So, I’m going to switch gears a little bit, so before we talk about how we can market wellness in Life Plan Communities, we should discuss how communities should develop the programs so that they can market, right? So, Colin, can you suggest a starting point?

CM: Yes I can. I always wanted to do that–just stop right there and let you think about that. So, here’s the very simple starting point, and we’ve heard it for years and we will probably continue to hear it for quite a while, and that is the first place to start is: how do you perceive aging? The reason for that is, if you were trying to create a new model with an old way of thinking, you’re going to struggle with that, but if you were trying to create a new dynamic, energetic model with a new way of thinking–and that is that the world is full of possibilities as opposed to the world is full diminished living–then the kind of programs, the services, and everything that you begin to look at is completely different. I’m sure that many folks listening to this, one of the challenges they have is staffing and the attitudes of staff towards aging–even staff themselves are very ageist. I’ve been into now maybe about 1,500 communities and some get it and some don’t, even though we’re all serving the health and well-being of older adults. So, the first place to start is to ensure that you’re all on the same page when it comes to what you’re about. If you’re about helping your residents to live life to their fullest potential, then everything else starts to fall into that. What does that mean? What are the services that we need to offer? What kind of staff do we need to have that will actually help deliver those kinds of services? What is the marketing message behind that? How do we actually develop our internal and external communication program to get that message out? So, my long-winded dissertation is that it all starts with what’s in between your two ears, and then from there, it’s just a matter of putting that into the strategy that you can actually implement to move that vision forward

CC: I’m glad you mentioned the internal communication, as well as the external, because we do often times find that there’s a good idea that maybe the board or leadership may have, but they don’t always have the support of their internal team and so the idea might be out there, it’ll go forward and then it sounds good, but then in reality it doesn’t always pan out because they don’t have that buy-in and that training, or that kind of mind-shift in their staff.

CM: You’re exactly right. And you know, wellness needs to be a culture. It’s not a department. So, what needs to be right across the community–and that’s whether it is your chefs, whether it is your housekeepers, whether it is your CEOs–everybody needs to be on the same page. And that’s the biggest challenge; we are in an industry that is very siloed. Sometimes we have our nursing or our memory care that is kind of hidden away or our long-term care is different, and we don’t want our potential residents to see that; the reality is that we’re all in this boat called life together. The question is how do we get the most out of it, and it all starts with a team that you have together and the culture that you create. So just creating a wellness department is only the first step. Creating a wellness culture is what is needed to really make your community a vibrant community.

CC: Right, exactly. So, how does the International Council on Active Aging help communities shift from their existing activities program to a structured program that can be measured through benchmarks?

CM: I think the first is that we give you a framework to work within. The one thing that we have found is if you dictate to people, it’s like dictating to your kids, they never listen to you. What we do is we try to provide the inspiration, the facts, the research, and the framework within which people can create their own dynamic results and programs because there are an awful lot of tremendously talented people out there. So, as an example, with the wellness dimensions we look at the seven dimensions of wellness, and how do you create a community that incorporates all of those? Whether its the physical dimension, whether it is the social dimension, the spiritual dimension, whether it’s the intellectual, vocational, the emotional, or the environmental dimension–and how do they then also merge together so it’s not just, “Okay, we’re just going to create this for brain fitness.” Well, that’s just one little element. “How do I create something for brain fitness so that it’s also socially engaging people and maybe we’re doing that while we’re being physically active, so they’re all integrated?” So really what we do is try and provide that framework that people can then integrate throughout their community and provide ongoing education and best practices of what people are doing. Now, with all of that said, we will also be launching in the fall at our conference on October 12 in Florida, our first wellness management certificate course. Why? Because of everything I just mentioned to you. There’s a certain expertise that is needed that is not being met right now in the industry to create that culture, to work and break down the silos, to work internally and externally, to be a cheerleader for residents and represent their thoughts while at the same time doing so for the community owner and executive directors. So that will be one of the very direct ways that we will be working much closer with our members over the coming years.

CC: That’s exciting, I love that! Could you explain the importance of benchmarks and the need to show people data-driven results, and how can that be used in marketing tactics?

CM: Well, marketers tend to want to put money where they think they’re going to get results. If you realize that almost one out of two people who come to your community are coming into your community looking for wellness or vibrant lifestyle that is underneath umbrella of wellness, there is a significant interest from a marketer to then develop a plan for those kinds of marketing strategies to enhance lifestyle. Now, on the other hand, from the CFO who is looking at the nuts and bolts of the organization and all the pennies that are spent, they, too, are looking at where we’re actually getting a return. Where are we spending money? So they need the nuts and bolts of it as well, and so with our benchmarks, as I mentioned, we can show that people live in a community longer and that they actually have a better quality of life than individuals outside of a community in the general public. Now, if I’m a marketer, I would be playing off of that like crazy! You know, saying, “By coming into our communities, you actually will have significantly better quality of life than the rest of the general population.” So, those are just a couple of the many, many, many statistics that we have in our reports that people can actually take and embrace and utilize in their marketing and in their business decisions. If I know that I’m going to keep people healthier, for longer, and I’m going to attract new people, and I’m going to get a greater word of mouth from truly satisfied individuals, and that people are going to be happy–imagine that, that’s kind of a novel concept, isn’t it? That people are happy. All of those things combined together make a community now more compelling to market and sell. So, “Am I making dollars on my wellness center?” Absolutely. You just need to look maybe a little bit differently because most of the fees are included by homeowners’ association fees, as opposed to a traditional, outside wellness center where it’s a membership base. But there’s no question that there is a significant return on investment for developers. And I have to tell you, the other part of all this is, if we expect that what we offer today is going to be appealing to Baby Boomers, we need to step back, shake our head, take a very cold bath, wake up and go back to work and start fresh. Start with the thought of when people are coming in and they want to fulfill their potential, what are all the things that they’re going to want to do? A lot of what we offer right now just doesn’t cut it.

CC: You’re exactly right, and we’re even seeing a lot of the pushback from the adult children who are kind of pushing their parents into that mindset right now. They’re coming in and asking, “What’s my mom’s life going to be like every day?” whether it’s independent living or assisted living, or even long-term care. You know, they don’t expect someone just to be sitting around waiting for the next meal to be served, or hanging out at what used to be the former nursing stations that we all dread when we take any kind of a look through a community. You brought up a lot of good points and I want to point people to your website, too, because there’s a really good press release there back from February of this year [2017], that gives some specific information about what you just shared, Colin. I thought it was a very good read, so I wanted to point that out as well. Do you have any additional comments that you’d like to make about the press release before I move on?

CM: You know, I think that at the end of the day, and I don’t know whoever came out with that saying because we’re not towards the end of the day, but you know, it really comes down to that there’s so much information out there today that shows the benefits of wellness, shows the benefits of physical activity, and shows the benefits of community. The question isn’t anymore, “Should I be doing it?” but the question is, “How am I going to do it and how am I going to compete with a guy like Jimmy Buffett, who is now coming into the market and opening multiple 55+ communities and is going to have all these Parrot Heads coming into his communities?” Guys like him are going to be setting the stage for what these communities are going to look like, and the staid, traditional furniture, very conservative chair-based organizations are in for a wake-up call. I’m not saying that they’re not valued—because they are, and there are people who will always need that care—but what happens if society begins to achieve what we, in research, have been looking at shrinking and shrinking morbidity. So we’re compressing morbidity so it becomes smaller and smaller, so that one day we just die. It’s not 8-10 years of a long, drawn out process like unfortunately my dad is experiencing. That in itself is going to completely transform senior living communities. Imagine that, senior living, just the term itself: how am I, as a Baby Boomer, going to respond to that? Not well.

CC: I like the Jimmy Buffett note because I’ve seen that, too. I think we’ve all kind of stopped and paid attention and say, “Hey, I’m just that person who’s over 55 and I’m thinking, hmm, that sounds like a good time!” He’s already got that brand established, so in your mind you’re already thinking about fun, where when people are thinking about living in a Life Plan Community, their first thought is not always, “This is really going to be a fun time” and I think we need to shift that.

CM: I think you just said the magic word, and that is: what do you want out of the rest of your life? Well, I want to have fun! I want to have experiences, I want to have enjoyment, I want to have connections, and you know, very few people are probably sitting there going, “I want to have a chair, I want to sit, I want to be able to just hang out.” There are a few, but now we add in all this technology and how is that going to impact everything, and are communities going to be versed in things like artificial intelligence? Are they going to have robotics? Are they going to have all the things that the rest of society is already starting to embrace? You know, communities are saying that people always need the human touch, which they do, but not everything needs to be human. All we have to do is look at the impact of the Apple iPhone.

CC: So true. So, just a couple more questions for you. I’d like to relate this back to the people who are out in the communities, maybe doing outreach and referral building, and they’re always putting that data and the outcomes. So, the participation of wellness programs can affect satisfaction in the referrals, but have you seen any way where people have been successful in sharing that data beyond just in words? I mean, do you have, again, any benchmarks for satisfaction like a survey?

CM: Yeah, you know, the benchmarks ask people that are in the community how satisfied they are. And of course, it’s subjective, but so is the general data out there from people like the CDC and so forth that are subjective as well, so we’re at least comparing subjective against subjective. The quality of life for individuals who are engaged in wellness, subjectively, is much higher than the average person. It’s higher than the other individuals within the community itself. So my question to anyone who owns a community or is developing a community is this: How important is it that your residents have a quality of life that they feel that they are having fun, that they feel that they are engaged, and that they feel that they’re getting their money’s worth? If there’s a value in that, there’s no question about wellness. If there’s no value in that, don’t spend a dime because wellness isn’t your bag.

CC: Exactly. I like that the information about the value because we’re always struggling to train admissions teams to talk about value and how and when you bring up pricing compared to what you’re getting for your money, and I think that will go a long way, too, once you know what that person is really expecting and looking for in a community. All right, so, how many prospective residents really seriously evaluate wellness programs when looking for a Life Plan Community? Do you believe that that’s shifting from the basic, “I want to move to somewhere where I can be taken care of and the quality of care is good and the food is good,” to “How am I really going to spend my day?” Tell me a little bit more about what you’ve heard about that.

CM: Well, I guess the very simple thing is how many people want to live? That’s really the question. How many people want to be taken care of versus how many people want to live? As I mentioned earlier, almost 50 percent of people coming in are actually looking for wellness and those forms of activities, and one of the reasons is that it is so prevalent now out in the mass media. The mass media has embraced what the research has shown, and the research is shown that we all age at different rates and we all have this potential within us, and the mass media is out there telling people this, so people are now coming in expecting new things. People are no longer expecting or thinking that you may or may not have technology; they’re expecting that you’re going to have technology. They’re expecting that you’re going to have WiFi, they’re expecting that you’re going to have wellness, they’re expecting that you’re going to have good food, they’re expecting that they’re going to be able to eat when they want and not just simply at specific times of day–who the hell does that? You know, I eat when I’m hungry! So, the expectations–and there is going to be this newfound expectation gap, I believe, where what communities think people are going to want and what people want are just not matching up. There’s this huge expectation gap, but once you fill this gap, I think that we’ll thrive in the future. Now, with that said, there’s so many people out there and there’s so many opportunities for all of these different models. So will you go away? You may not go away, but you may not be the player that you are today in the industry based on your current model in the future.

CC: I can’t resist sharing a comment, because we’re really always promoting people to think differently and let their residents be more involved, and we always hear, “Well the residents are happy, they don’t want to do anything different, we tried once or twice and they just don’t want to.” So I like your expectations concept, where you build the expectation, understand the expectation, and then–even for the people, as you transition in your own communities–help them to understand the potential of who they can be instead of the potential of what they thought they could be when they moved in.

CM: Yeah, and you know, the other part of that is that the residents are only going to know so much. Not many people would’ve just run out there and say, “Let’s create the Internet” or, “Hey, let’s create a car as opposed to a horse” or, “Let’s create a plane.” So every point or every stage throughout society has gone through constant change, and we’re no different. So thinking that residents want to stay the exact same way? They just simply want to see a good reason to change. As my grandmother, who is 106, always says, “Change is constant,” and she has seen more change than anybody else that I know. So trying to tell her that change isn’t a good thing? I mean, think about the changes she’s seen in 106 years. She just simply wants to know that it is going to increase her quality of life.

CC: Exactly! Well stated, well stated. So, to wrap everything up: now that we have a good idea of the importance of wellness programs in Life Plan Communities, how can communities market the benefits to prospective residents?

CM: Well, that’s the exciting part! That’s the fun part: marketing the benefits when there are so many good benefits! But a lot of times we focus on ones that maybe aren’t as compelling. So some of the benefits that I would really market and focus on are, which we’ve talked about, doing all of this is just fun! There are some people who prefer to be alone; there’s fewer of them, but there are some people who just aren’t social beings, which is fine, just understand that that’s just who they are. But for the rest of the audience, market the fact that you have a fun community and that people are living–not staying, they’re living–in your community and that they have come alive by moving to your community. My parents moved into a community recently. Many of their friends had moved away and their social connections had diminished, but now they have newfound friends and newfound social connections. They’re engaged in all of the different clubs and they’re engaged in physical activity, but for the future, are they going to be engaged in things like adventure travel? Are they going to be engaged in doing things that we once thought completely out of the question because people were “old?” It’s not about age; it is about people’s attitudes and people’s functional abilities. That is why today we’re seeing what we never thought possible, like people accomplishing tasks such as marathons and jumping out of a plane and doing all of these things, and yes, most people may never do that, but what it is, is that people can if they wish. So marketing the message of opportunity and potential, to me, is what a community should and could be about as opposed to the bricks and mortar. Everybody has bricks and mortar. The expectation that the bricks and mortar are going to be high-class? That’s expected. What goes on within it is what’s going to bring the community to life, and also keep it alive.

CC: I’m excited for the day when we can go open up a marketing brochure and not find a services and amenities page in there, and instead of having “3 meals a day,” or “housekeeping once a week,” we have a whole list of how you can live while you’re in a community. I can’t wait to get to that point.

CM: It’s coming! And the interesting part is it may not be coming from within the industry. A perfect example is, again, Jimmy Buffet. We will be watching him very closely to see what he does and what we can learn from that. People like the NFL that now are looking at or have been building a Life Plan Community, you know, people like that are not property developers per-say, but are visionaries. Sometimes change doesn’t come from within, a lot of times it comes from the outside.

CC: Great point! Well, Colin, thank you so much! It was truly a pleasure to speak with you today, and I really have learned a lot from your insight and your experience, and again, I just thank you for taking part in this conversation with us today.

CM: It’s my pleasure! And you know; if I can ever be of assistance, please let me know!

CC: Thank you!

If you would like to learn more about marketing wellness in Life Plan Communities, please call Tim Bracken at 410-207-0013 or Rick Hunsicker at 214-906-3801. 

For more information about the International Council on Active Aging, please visit their website or “like” them on Facebook.

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