A large discrepancy exists between how senior living professionals and adults the age of residents and their adult children view the industry, according to the results of a new survey.
The finding shows that the industry has some work to do to change the perceptions of some prospective residents and their families, according to a white paper that shares the survey results. One way to do that, the authors say, is for operators to adopt an “autonomous living” approach.
“We give ourselves a glowing review, as we should if we take pride in what we do,” International Council on Active Aging founder and CEO Colin Milner told McKnight’s Senior Living. “But the glowing review dims a bit when you start to look at what the consumer — your potential resident — thinks.
“When the first word that comes out of their mouth when they talk about senior living communities is ‘old,’ you’ve got a problem.”
The purpose of the survey and what’s being called a first-of-its-kind report, “Unlocking the future: Closing the gap between consumer expectations and community offerings in senior living,” Milner said, is to help providers understand how well industry offerings align with customer needs and expectations, with an eye toward identifying areas of opportunity for possible action.
According to the survey, which included 1,016 individuals aged 40 to 80 years and was conducted in January by marketing consultancy Age of Majority, senior living professionals view their communities as positive (74%), fun (72%), social (89%) and active (80%). Adults aged 40 or more years, however, perceive senior living as old (50%), depressing (34%), boring (28%) and stagnant (22%).
The significant disconnect, Milner said, highlights the need for a deeper understanding of the expectations and desires of potential residents.
The senior living industry is making significant changes in lifelong learning, spiritual wellness, self expression and an overall wellness focus, but it hasn’t done much to counteract negative perceptions, he said.
“We think we’re doing a great job — and many may well be — but that message isn’t getting through to the consumer,” Milner said.
Bridging the gaps
Major themes of the report include the draw of autonomous living, how negative perceptions can overshadow the industry’s benefits and opportunities, the mismatch between amenities offered and those desired, and contrasting perspectives on health and wellness offerings and what prospective residents want from their community.
Milner said the idea of autonomous living “stuck out like a sore thumb” in the survey. The industry always has been challenged to convince people to move out of their own homes, he said, because there they can do what they want, when they want, with whom they want.
“To me, what came through loud and clear is, we need to be a much more flexible industry to provide environments that foster that autonomy and provide autonomous living, or an autonomous living approach to whatever type of community we have as opposed to a restrictive one,” Milner said.
A recent McKinsey Health Institute survey similarly found that highlighting efforts to help residents maintain independence may help senior living operators attract more consumers.
Almost 75% of active agers responding to the ICAA survey said they plan to stay in their homes or downsize, whereas only 6% said they plan to move into an active 55-plus community, and only 3.3% said they plan to live in independent or assisted living communities.
ICAA survey respondents also appear optimistic about their ability to age in place: 33.1% of active agers agree that mobility issues will keep them from staying in their homes, 33.2% agree that they might not be able to care for themselves or a partner, 26.3% agree that their homes may not be age-friendly, and 23.4% agree that financial pressures may make it impossible to stay.
Additionally, ICAA survey respondents have concerns about senior living: 57% are worried about affordability, 43.6% fear loss of privacy, 34.1% said they would feel old living in a senior living community, 30.5% are afraid of a loss of independence and 29.4% said that they find the atmosphere depressing.
Despite the noted perspective disconnect, the study findings also suggest opportunities for senior living operators to bridge the gap and assume leadership in rethinking and reshaping their offerings.
Language matters, according to the report. The word “senior,” which may reinforce the negative perception of “old,” has been dropped from some community branding, but marketing messages around programming and services have not necessarily shifted to focus on empowerment and increased quality of life in senior living.
The report suggested that communities build on the perception of senior living as a social place with connections through programs and people, as well as it being a safe space. The white paper also noted that advertising family connections, friends and easy access to nearby shopping and lifestyle choices may be more important messages than talking about the fire pit.
Among the amenities active agers found important were internet connectivity (93%), air quality (90%), essential shopping (65%), restaurants and dining (43%) and proximity to parks/nature (36%). Less important to them were recreation/fitness facilities and classes (approximately 16%), entertainment (21%) and non-essential shopping (26%).
The report noted that the closest alignment between senior living offerings and consumer interests was in the area of healthy building features. Fueled by the pandemic, buildings have been remodeled to improve ventilation, provide more efficient cleaning and not require the touching of faucets and doors — all areas of importance identified by prospective residents.
Senior living, Milner said, must find a way to make its message heard to cut through existing negative perceptions.
“When they are unaware of the atmosphere and lifestyle available within senior living, they lack the information needed to make those decisions,” the report concluded. “As an industry, senior living operators have tremendous potential to provide a best home for people as they age if they are guided by what older adults prioritize.”