John O'Connor
John O’Connor

Is the senior living field about to blossom, or mired in trouble? The obvious answer: Yes and yes.

On the blooming side are companies like Brookdale Senior Living, which is seeing occupancy rates nearing pre-pandemic levels. And then there’s Sonida Senior Living, which just reported revenue growth for the fifth straight quarter.

Trilogy Senior Living and Colonial Assisted Living are also in a happy place. Each was just named to the Inc. 5000 list of America’s fastest-growing private companies.

Celebrate good times? Come on.

Because for every operator digging out, there are others in a deeper hole. To be sure, the pandemic gets much of the blame. It drove down occupancy, raised operating costs and perhaps worst of all, planted seeds of doubt about the upside of congregate living the minds of all too many octogenarians — and their children.

But truth be told, many operators were having trouble making payroll prior to COVID-19’s arrival.

So we should probably be a bit more cautious when it comes to broad-stroke statements about senior living’s overall condition. Why? Because this is anything but a one-size-fits-all sector.

The reality is that now, as always, some operators barely hanging on, while others are enjoying record growth.

There is a saying in Washington that all politics is local. There is certainly a corollary in this field. What works for an operator in one ZIP code, county, state or region may not work in another.

So where do we go for meaningful answers? My recommendation is the restaurant industry, which faces some similar challenges.

In just about any place where people eat, new restaurants are popping up, even as established eateries are shutting down. Those that thrive have one thing in common: they have found a unique recipe that works.

When all is said and done, maybe success in senior living also comes down to finding the right secret sauce.

John O’Connor is editorial director for McKnight’s Senior Living and its sister media brands, McKnight’s Long-Term Care News, which focuses on skilled nursing, and McKnight’s Home Care. Read more of his columns here.

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