When looking at a research report about the senior living industry, it’s useful to examine the findings with a critical eye. Does the sample size provide valid results? Were there additional variables that could have impacted the findings? Does the control group offer a true apples-to-apples comparison?
For research on humans, longitudinal studies with larger sample and control groups generally offer more valid results than most other study methodologies. And this is why the results of the five-year Mather Institute Age Well Study are catching the attention of the senior living industry.
The study’s fifth- and final-year results are in, and once again, residents living in continuing care retirement communities (CCRCs, or life plan communities) have been found to have better physical, intellectual, emotional, vocational, and social wellness than other “community-dwelling” seniors — typically those living in their own home in the broader community.
The Age Well Study’s background and methodology
Mather is a non-denominational, not-for-profit organization based in Chicago focused on improving the lives of America’s seniors. The organization operates an independent living rental community and two CCRCs, with a third CCRC slated to open in 2024. Mather also provides a number of in-person and online programs open to all seniors — some educational, some wellness-based, some creative.
In addition to their senior living and engagement initiatives, in 1999, Mather founded the nationally recognized Mather Institute, a “innovation incubator” that partners with healthcare organizations, universities, and community groups across the nation to conduct research on senior living residents and community-residing older adults (usually those living in their own home outside of a retirement community).
The groundbreaking Age Well Study was launched in 2018, teaming the Mather Institute with renowned researchers at Northwestern University in Chicago. The five-year longitudinal Age Well Study utilizes a yearly survey to collect participants’ self-reported health and wellness data, and to explore the impact of seniors’ living environment including on their cognitive, physical, and psychosocial health, and overall sense of wellbeing.
Over the study’s five years, more than 8,200 residents from 122 CCRCs across the country were surveyed. Some survey questions were consistent from year to year while others delved into a specific focus topic for that year.
- Year 1: Overall wellness
- Year 2: Physical health and healthy behaviors
- Year 3: Happiness and life satisfaction
- Year 4: Resilience and coping strategies
- Year 5: Changes in health and wellness
The CCRC residents’ responses were compared to a demographically similar control group of “community-dwelling” seniors (people who are not living in a CCRC; could be home-based or potentially live in another type of retirement community) using data from the Health and Retirement Study (HRS), conducted by the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan. Additionally, responses from Year 1 and Year 5 were compared.
CCRC residents have better overall wellness
Year 5 of the Age Well Study was completed earlier this year, and the results bolster the findings of the previous four years. Among the key findings, once again, for a fifth year, residents of CCRCs were found to have better physical, intellectual, emotional, vocational, and social wellness when compared to older adults in the control group who lived in their own home outside of a CCRC.
- CCRC residents had better self-reported health and higher levels of moderate physical activity compared to older adults from the community at-large group.
- Members of the CCRC resident cohort showed greater social wellness on all measures as compared to the community-at-large respondents.
- The CCRC residents ranked lower in one category of spiritual/vocational wellness — religiosity — as compared to older adults from the community at-large, but ranked comparably or higher in other subsets of that category including purpose in life and retirement satisfaction.
- For emotional wellness, the CCRC resident group ranked comparably or significantly better than their community-dwelling peers in all categories — including satisfaction with life, optimism, and perceptions of aging — with the one exception of depressive symptoms, where CCRC residents ranked lower than the control group.
- CCRC residents reported better self-rated memory and higher participation in intellectual activities when compared to older adults in the broader community.
An important note on the Year 5 dataset
There is one important caveat to note when looking at the Year 5 Age Well Study results. The control group data was drawn from the 2018 HRS (surveyed between April 2018 and June 2019) and 2020 HRS (surveyed between March 2020 and March 2021). This means that more than half (55 percent) of those community-at-large surveys were responses given prior to the start of the pandemic. By comparison, 100 percent of the CCRC residents’ responses for Year 5 were from two years into the pandemic.
As you might imagine, the Age Well Study researchers acknowledged that this inconsistency in survey administration time frame complicated their analysis and could mean the CCRC residents and the control group were not truly apples-to-apples for Year 5. For instance, the decline in positive perceptions of aging among the CCRC resident cohort may be related to the increase in ageism many experienced during the pandemic.
The Year 5 report notes that the researchers plan to update their data analysis and comparisons in 2024 once new data is available reflecting how the pandemic impacted those seniors living in the community at-large.
What seniors and senior living can learn from the Age Well Study
There are a variety of takeaways for seniors considering a move to a CCRC or other type of senior living community, as well as for those communities themselves.
First, despite what some people may speculate, residents of CCRCs continued to thrive despite the challenges created by the pandemic. As these Year 5 Age Well Study survey results show, even when compared to data on seniors living outside of a CCRC taken prior to the pandemic, CCRC residents are still overwhelmingly happier and healthier on nearly every measure.
For CCRCs and other types of senior living communities, the study validates the fact that many of the programs and services they are offering are making a meaningful difference in supporting the mental, physical, and emotional wellness of their residents. There are, of course, always opportunities for improvement, and the study’s researchers proposed ways to better encourage residents’ emotional wellness, address ageism and support more positive feelings on aging, and nurture religious/spiritual preferences and practices.
But overall, Year 5 of the Age Well Study is good news for CCRC residents and communities alike, and should serve as further evidence that the decision to move to a senior living community such as a CCRC can truly have a positive impact on the mental, physical, and emotional wellness of seniors.
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