Imagine for a moment a place where people live during retirement that provides maintenance-free living and a comprehensive wellness program—complete with a personal trainer, fitness center, yoga and meditation classes, saltwater lap pools, and more. Imagine that it also offers a bistro and coffee shop, a gourmet chef who uses locally sourced foods, nature trails, a library and computer center, continuing education classes, community project involvement, and a multitude of resident-led affinity groups and activities. Imagine still that this place also makes available a range of healthcare services, including an on-site health clinic, assisted living, and a 24-hour healthcare center, in case a resident’s health needs change, either gradually or more suddenly and unexpectedly.
For many people this sounds like a pretty nice arrangement; an easy lifestyle today with a plan in place for future needs. Well guess what? Places like this already exist, and they’re often referred to today as life plan communities. (They’ve traditionally been called continuing care retirement communities or CCRCs.)
While some life plan communities do a better job than others, the most forward-thinking communities—those that not only accommodate but also foster the lifestyle preferences of the next generation of retirees—will offer many of the above described features and even more. Yet, residents of life plan communities only represent a small portion of the overall retirement population in the United States. It begs the question: Why?
Well, to be sure, it isn’t inexpensive to provide such a comprehensive offering of services and amenities. Therefore, life plan communities typically cater to the wealthiest of the retiree population. This narrows the market dramatically, although the industry is exploring new ways to offer a more cost-effective model that is more palatable for the middle market and also financially sustainable for the provider. Options such as lower-cost a la carte fee structures give prospective residents the opportunity to pay only for those services and amenities they use. Some CCRC developers may begin to forgo the more luxurious features, while placing increased emphasis on the overall resident experience, and contract with local organizations for services and amenities. (You can learn more about what CCRCs will look like in the future in Chapter 7 of my book, What’s the Deal with Retirement Communities?, available on Amazon.com.)
>> Related: The Voice of the Resident: Why the Senior Living Industry Should Listen
Prospects’ first impressions
But beyond the cost impact, there is a bigger conundrum that the industry faces. Despite the numerous attractive aspects of a life plan community that I’ve described above, many consumers still view CCRCs as “retirement homes,” a term that has historically been translated as the equivalent of a “nursing home.” Why is this, you might ask? What I described above certainly does not sound like a nursing home, right? Of course not, but in the real world, here’s what often happens…
Suppose a life plan community, or CCRC, was developed 25 years ago. When it opened, it was the talk of the town among retirees. Within the first few months of opening, it was completely full, and a multi-year waiting list quickly evolved.
Let’s fast-forward 25 years to the present day. Many of the residents who entered the community in their mid-60s or early-70s are now well into their 80s and 90s. While a lot of these residents are still living independent and even active lives, others require assistive devices, such as walkers or wheelchairs, to get around, but they remain socially engaged. Still others are now receiving care services in the assisted living or healthcare center.
Now, suppose a couple in their early 70s decides they are ready to downsize a bit and are interested in a maintenance-free lifestyle with all the services and amenities I mentioned above. They decide to visit this particular retirement community. As they pull up to the main building, they notice the well-maintained landscaping and attractive building facades. As they park the car and walk into the main entrance, what is one of the first things they see? They see some of those residents who moved in years ago moving around on scooters or using walkers. All of a sudden, their entire perspective changes. Immediately they begin to think, “We’re not ready for this yet. We’re too young and active.”
This is the great CCRC conundrum, and it is exactly why some life plan communities, despite their best efforts, are still viewed as “old folks’ homes.” The harsh reality is that the more people who think of CCRCs as just being for elderly people, the older the base of new residents will be. And this conundrum is at least partially responsible for setting into motion one of the biggest challenges life plan communities face: attracting younger and healthier residents.
>> Related: What Will Retirement Communities Look Like in the Future?
A tough question to answer
Although the issue may be more pronounced at CCRCs since they have an on-site skilled healthcare facility, this is a problem that impacts many senior living communities. So, what is the industry to do? Shall they separate or hide those residents who are frailer in the hopes that able-bodied prospective residents won’t notice? Absolutely not. The fact is, most communities I have visited understand the importance of respecting everyone for who they are, regardless of their stage of life. They recognize that just because someone uses a scooter or a walker, or they need a bit of assistance on a daily basis, does not mean they are less valuable as a human being. They can still offer just as much to their community, and to society, as those who are living independently. Yet, until societal perceptions about aging change, this likely will continue to be a problem that plagues the CCRC industry.
Now, I don’t want to be naïve. I understand that it is easier for some than for others to confront the inevitable process of aging, but, as described by Harvard professor of psychology Ellen Langer in a Boston Times article, “If you have the mind-set that everything is getting worse as you age and nothing’s as good as it was before, then anything that reminds you that you’re a senior is going to be negative.” Langer continued, “But now there’s the belief that 80 is the new 60, and so if you get people together who are feeling vital, I think that retirement communities can be great places.”
Perhaps CCRCs will begin taking more creative steps to help reverse the industry trend, such as offering discounts to new residents under a certain age. This would be similar to a 40-and-under membership that many private country clubs offer for a deeply discounted entry fee. I’m sure there are a host of other creative ideas that could be implemented to help address this issue.
A life plan community—with its amenities, services, and the peace-of-mind those things offer residents in the long-term—seems like a product that would sell itself. The industry must get creative in finding new ways to convincingly market these benefits to a younger, healthier demographic of seniors.