After three days of inspiring, educational sessions and bustling networking events, the EFA Expo & Conference came to and end. However, to cap off the inspirational event, members of the industry sat down for a thought-provoking discussion on strategies to guide senior living forward, and why the current industry needs to change.
The discussion was moderated by Environments for Aging Editor-in-Chief Jennifer Kovacs Silvis and included Jane Rohde, principal at JSR Associates Inc.; Lisa Warnock, director of housing interiors at LRS Architects; Steve Lindsey, CEO of Garden Spot Communities; and Mike Harris, president, Cornerstone Senior Living LLC.
Eyes to the Future of Senior Living
It all started with past reflections—more than a year of an industry grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic—with Rhode noting it’s
provided an opportunity to “think fully about our work.”
On the operator side, Harris said the industry went from normal operations to “DEFCON 5” overnight, and many organizations quickly saw the importance of the ability to “step in and lead.”
Another lesson was learning to adapt on the fly. While it was important to address issues such as air quality and HVAC systems and put safety protocols in place, it was also key for organizations to learn how to keep admitting residents and growing their communities.
Warnock agreed on the need for fresh strategies, saying that the industry has a “tremendous opportunity to do more,” including rethinking existing models and design features. For example, she said the last year taught the industry how do design safer spaces, but also emphasized the need to build “more meaningful outdoor spaces.”
Garden Spot’s Lindsey added the past year also “really validated the household model,” with many of these communities seeing better outcomes and allowing residents to maintain connections to others during the pandemic.
Better Serving the Market
As conversations turned to the future, the panelists then dove into four topics—market, place, home, and staff—and how the senior living industry should be moving forward post pandemic. And starting with the market, Lindsey outlined how, traditionally, the industry has categorized residents that often defined where they needed to live and how they would live there.
With today’s technology and seniors being more internet savvy, he stated that the industry needs to shift towards a “post-demographic way of thinking.”
“We can’t build for old people anymore,” he said. “We constantly need to refresh.” He also added that the industry should not only look within but to other sectors such as dining and residential for fresh takes.
Harris also added it was important to understand that the competition has changed. Seniors not only have a rising preference for home health services or aging in place options, but they also want to move to warmer climates or closer to relatives, instead of the nearest senior living community.
Additionally, the speakers turned their attention to the markets underserved by the industry—especially the middle market. One idea suggested by Rodhe and Warnock was clustering affordable housing units near existing amenities to provide access to services without relying on the operator or organization to provide the space or labor for everything. “Anything’s on the table but it’s something we need to think creatively on,” Rohde said.
Creating Authentic Spaces
With a turn to the idea of integrating placemaking concepts to create authentic experiences, Lindsey said he’d like to see the industry shift its thinking from marketability or what looks good in brochures to spaces that layer in activities throughout the day and feel inviting to all residents. “Owners and operators need to understand that our role is creating relationships,” he said.
To design authentic spaces, Warnock said it’s important for project teams to be ready to “show up and listen.” Furthermore, she said, projects should focus on adding elements and activities to help draw residents into desired spaces, such as an outdoor courtyard for memory care residents that includes such elements as a water feature, fireplaces, and aviaries. “Program it well,” she said.
Rohde then added that the industry should also be looking to create “more than just a building,” but communities that are connected and provide access to health and wellness-focused activities, such as trails and transportation options. “What encourages them to do ‘X’?” she said. “It’s community design in a broader sense.”
To start delivering on this, Harris said communities need to plan for more than just opening their doors and start imagining what their second or third phases will look like and how that influences what they do in the first phase of a project. “It’s important to think about your future success,” he said.
Identifying What Makes a Home
The topic of what defines home for residents, today and tomorrow, should be another key focus of the industry, according to Warnock. Communities should look at the resident room and wonder how they can offer more opportunities for customization to support the idea of choice.
However, Harris cautioned about the “influence of HGTV” and its impact on seniors’ expectations, adding that the industry shouldn’t try to compete with the commercial market. “People aren’t coming for the real estate, they’re coming for the community, the safety/security, the life plan services.”
How to Better Serve Staff
Finally, the last topic of the discussion fell upon staffing and the need to focus on operational models to deliver a better experience. Rohde began by proposing that workforce development, living wages, transportation assistance, and on-site housing for employees be considered to help address staffing issues as well as increase competencies and create a career path for those in the field.
On the design side, she added that ideas from better respite spaces to access to the outdoors to having frontline conversations with employees on their needs can help staff feel like they’re being seen. Lindsey added that it’s also important to consider how layouts can help address operational issues, such as walking distances between resident rooms and access to needed supplies.
While burnout was already an issue in the industry—and further exacerbated by COVID-19—Warnock noted that she still finds clients that don’t want to focus on staff respite spaces and amenities. Her response is to encourage them to “aspire to be like tech,” referring to technology companies which have led the way in providing spaces for staff to relax, take a break, or access health or career resources from the office. “You can show your staff how much you care for them by supporting their health,” she said.
Another version of this article originally appeared on Environments for Aging.