John O'Connor

Despite what some observers might like to believe, senior living increasingly is becoming a healthcare business.

More than ever, residents are arriving with cognitive, psychological and physical challenges that until recently would have landed them in a nursing home. Maybe even a hospital.

There’s really no point in arguing about whether senior living’s healthcare transition is happening. In virtually every state, it is. And by all indications, the future of this sector may have less to do with serving lifestyle choices than caring for the sick.

So let’s not waste any more time debating whether this clear and present shift is underway.What perhaps should be debated, however, is, well, branding. At least branding as it relates to healthcare as we know it.

I think a pretty strong case can be made that what hospitals, nursing homes and even senior living communities deliver is not really healthcare. It’s sick care.

Many of the services we see are reactionary rather than preventive in nature. They are intended to help residents heal, or at the very least, minimize the damage. That’s not an accusation, it’s pointing out the obvious.

Senior living operators should not be blamed for the fact that the business they are drifting toward is mislabeled. Truth be told, healthcare always has had a branding accuracy problem.

But as any person who has ever dropped a line in the water will tell you, it’s best to fish where the fish are. And frankly, sick care has been the option that has made the most economic sense.

Is more of the same unavoidable? Maybe not. A new report from the McKinsey Health Institute makes this argument: Adopting a holistic health framework that addresses mental, social, spiritual and physical dimensions could improve how well and long residents live.

To be sure, some operators are homing in on some of this already. But they are outliers at this point.

Which is a shame. This could be a huge opportunity for senior living. As the study shows, a more holistic approach has clear benefits for residents. Moreover, senior living is uniquely positioned to be champions here.

And frankly, the approach dovetails nicely with the traditional underpinnings of senior living: maximizing choice and autonomy.

One of the major questions facing this sector now is this: Should we become more active players in the healthcare continuum?

Perhaps the better question is this: Why not do better than that?

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.