Remember what we used to call a “nursing home?” Well, they’re quickly disappearing, and in their place are what we now like to call “senior living communities.” The changes, however, go well beyond just a friendlier naming convention, as they’ve transitioned from something akin to a hospital to communities that sometimes can look more like a resort.
As baby boomers age, the senior living market segment has grown dramatically, and it will continue to do so. As a result, we are seeing an industry-wide shift.
When the term “nursing home” comes to mind, the traditional images associated with it tend not to be the most complimentary. I can still remember visiting my first nursing home some 40 years ago to meet my then fiancée’s grandmother (our second daughter, by the way, is named after her). It was a pretty intimidating place, and it reminded me of something more attune to what one might call an “institution” than anything even close to a “home.” That perception probably was not far off from what most thought, and what many continue to think — especially among those who haven’t seen the inside of one of the newer buildings or communities.
Residual perceptions aside, these institutions have slowly gone away. They have been replaced over the past few decades by new communities that provide a more resort-like experience, especially at the high end of the market. Today, residents can participate in all kinds of activities and maintain an active and engaged lifestyle. To drive this evolution, the industry rethought how it engaged with residents, putting priority on good life versus the idea of simply extending life. Industry-leading providers now are focused on creating an extraordinary experience by offering extraordinary services, all within an extraordinary living environment.
The evolution from nursing homes to senior living communities
Traditional nursing homes in the United States emerged more than 50 years ago, with architectural design and physical staffing models that originally evolved from a hospital setting. These facilities were focused on a command and control model, where residents had little autonomy over their daily schedules and activities. This experience was anything but personal. The market, driven by innovators, became more focused on providing a home-like experience. Although not everyone was on board with the changes, soon enough, everyone had to change or risk reduced occupancy and increased business risk. Gone is the term “nursing home,” and in its place is the new reality of senior living, with innovative approaches to the physical buildings, care and staffing models, as well as programming and events.
• Physical buildings and apartments
One of the most obvious changes to the industry is the physical aspects of the properties. The buildings that carry the name senior living communities are exactly that — communities. Today, you often see large-scale campuses, vibrant common areas and amenities such as sun rooms, gardens, game rooms, pools, gyms and even my favorite, “cocktail lounges.” What used to look like hospital rooms have evolved to more traditional apartments, condos, townhomes and even cottages.
Frequently, communities also are positioning themselves in downtown or vibrant areas, providing an opportunity for residents to shop, dine out or walk in a nearby park (millennials like to call this a “live, work, play” environment). In the future, we can expect to see continued progress, as newer communities continue to push the envelope with cutting-edge architectural designs tailored for today’s seniors — all with the vision of making residents feel at home — or should I say, be at home.
• Care and staffing advancement
Approaches to care and associated staffing models have changed as well, with an increased focus on person-centered care and attention. Successful operators have realized the key to improved outcomes is individualized support services to meet not only the medical, but also the emotional needs of diverse populations. This new level of care has helped residents to feel more engaged in their personal health and closer to others in their community. There is recognition that folks don’t always want everything done for them; what they want instead is to have a purpose. In the simplest terms, there is a recognition that people just want to be happy.
• Programming shift
To create a more engaging environment, senior living communities have evolved their programming to create a greater sense of independence and connection with others in the community: their neighbors. In the past, residents were told when to wake up, eat, bathe and go to bed, based on a set of routines scheduled by the others. Today, most senior living communities provide residents with the ability to plan their own days, creating a sense of independence that residents desire. They also have the ability to participate in dozens of diverse programs and special events organized by the community.
Community staff members now increasingly engage and welcome input from families and residents before making decisions that affect daily life, creating a more resident-focused way of thinking. This shift allows residents to feel a sense of purpose, and it provides them with a way to create their own community within the establishment.
A next frontier: User-centric technology
Although the new physical buildings, approaches to care and programming options have become more tailored to residents’ desires, the industry today is at a new crossroads, this time focused on technology. Much like the evolution from the “nursing home” model to today’s “senior living communities,” technology for older adults also is shifting from regulatory-centered monitoring to a model that creates a great consumer experience for residents and their loved ones while providing staff and operators with insights and trends that allow them to better serve their customers.
This new evolution will come quickly, will have a large-scale effect and will continue to focus on the needs of residents, helping to make them feel more engaged, more fulfilled and more connected. This shift, again, will challenge the leading operators in the industry to paint a new future and reward those “early adopters” that continue to lead the industry forward.
F. Scott Moody is the co-founder and CEO of K4Connect, a technology integration company with a goal of making lives simpler, healthier and happier for older adults and those living with disabilities. Moody previously co-founded AuthenTec, the company that developed the technologies now at the foundation of the Touch ID in Apple iOS products.