John O'Connor
John O’Connor

It’s no secret that many developers have a concept of affordable senior living that’s a bit out of whack.

Put another way, assuming people will spend 100% or more of their income to reside in your senior living community is, to say the least, questionable.

So it is heartening to see the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care putting its money where its mouth is when it comes to understanding who those in the middle actually are.

Following up on an earlier announcement, the group said this week it will award a $125,000 grant to University of Chicago researchers so they can formally study this largely overlooked cohort.

We should be heartened that some much-needed information likely will be unearthed by this long-overdue inquiry. For by the time researchers hang the last dog here, a clearer picture of this market and a profile of its constituents is all but certain.

NIC CEO Robert G. Kramer told my colleague Lois Bowers that investigators will focus on people whose income or assets are too high for Medicaid eligibility without a “spend down,” but are too low to afford life in existing senior living communities, “at least for very long.” And therein lies the rub.

For although it’s important to get residents into your community, it’s another thing to keep them there — especially if they never had the financial wherewithal to stay long in the first place. That challenge can be compounded when it turns out many of those residents are a lot less physically and mentally independent than anticipated.

To be sure, there are quite a few octogenarians who can play 18 holes and pay $4,000 or more a month without experiencing any physical or fiscal discomfort. But they represent a fairly distant deviation from the mean. For many in the middle, the idea of such playing or paying amounts to wishful thinking.

It’s very possible the real payoff of this study may be the reality check it delivers. And here, I’m afraid, the findings may not be so encouraging.

But even if it turns out that many in the middle are a lot sicker and poorer than expected, it’s better to know than to not know.

Otherwise, we’re likely to see a lot of developers creating housing and healthcare choices that are ill-suited to the actual needs of the market.

Not that there’s any precedent for that sort of thing.

John O’Connor is editorial director of McKnight’s Senior Living. Email him at [email protected].