hands working on blueprint
(Credit: Terry Vine / Getty Images)

CHICAGO — What happens when you invite a group of senior living CEOs to share personal plans for their third acts? For architectural firm Perkins Eastman, the result was a think tank of experts who defined ideal experiences that simply don’t exist in today’s traditional continuing care retirement / life plan communities. 

A panel of architectural and CCRC executives discussed conversations they had had over the past nine months about how senior living leaders can spur innovation by developing new models that balance cutting-edge visions with the realities of implementation. The panel was part of the 2023 LeadingAge Annual Meeting on Tuesday. The meeting ends today.

“There are some amazing communities out there, but a lot of what we started to discuss was outside of what the traditional life plan community offers,” said Merintha Pinson, a Perkins Eastman senior associate.

Differing ideas about retirement

Timothy Johnson, immediate past CEO of Colorado-based Frasier, retired this year after 48 years in the industry. But he said he wasn’t ready to move into a community “where everyone knows my business.”

Johnson said that he and his wife wanted to travel and split their living between Chicago and Charleston, SC, to spend time with friends and family. In his retirement, he started a consulting business, and his wife substitute-teaches, to continue doing the things they loved.

“When I retired from my full-time life as a CEO of a life plan community, we didn’t retire from our desire to continue some degree of work in our chosen areas,” Johnson said. “This  lifestyle isn’t compatible with most traditional life plan models.”

At some point, he said, understanding health constraints and mortality, they might want the security of a life plan community. But not today.

Gretchen Cobb, chief operating officer of Arizona-based Royal Oaks Retirement Community, said that CCRCs offer undeniable social benefits, but she’s looking for something that aligns with her personal lifestyle.

“I know one day I’m not just going to be looking for a place to live. I’m going to be looking for a place that aligns with my interests and who I am,” Cobb said.

Ben Glichrist, president and CEO of North Carolina-based Southminster, said he’s looking for housing options that center around active lifestyle, affordability and flexibility. Tiny homes, he said, take up less real estate, are affordably built, can be located in good destinations and can create networks to allow people to access lifestyles they may not normally be able to access.

Shifting consumer expectations

Among the challenges that life plan communities face are shifting consumer expectations. Gilchirist said that communities need to better align themselves with resident desires and try to connect with resident personalities. Ultimately, he said, communities are competing with homes in the greater community to get future residents.

“From an industry level, we need to be looking for strategic partnerships and find solutions to address affordability and operational issues, like staffing shortages,” Gilchrist said, adding that the industry also needs to improve the decision-making process to help boards move more quickly to take advantage of opportunities that arise.

“Most LeadingAge members have a solid product that sells well today,” said Dan Cinelli, principal with Perkins Eastman. “If we don’t continue to innovate, the model won’t be sustainable five, 10, 20 years from now.”

Pinson said that a good portion of baby boomers have personal experiences with helping members of the Greatest Generation of the Silent Generation — their parents or grandparents and others — find care. She added that they also saw the negative headlines about long-term care facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic. That combination of experiences — both positive and negative — will affect how prospective residents plan for their own futures.

“It’s really crucial that we understand the values of this future consumer and really align our services to appeal to them,” Pinson said.

Referring to the recent New Age of Aging online survey of older adults by Age Wave, Pinson said that 83% of older adults surveyed said they want to remain useful, more than half want to continue to work, and 97% said that it’s important to stay curious, something Cinelli called the “brightest flashlight and an opportunity for change I have ever seen.” 

Cinelli said that the traditional CCRC boils down to three things: living life to the fullest with a plan, having peace of mind that services are located on one campus, and recognizing the need for older adults to connect with other older adults. But the formula for today’s life plan community is housing plus continuum of care plus amenities — and it hasn’t changed in 50 years, he added.

Rather than “trying to figure out the better mousetrap,” the panel said the formula needs to change to home plus longevity plus experiences, the idea being that the qualities a community offers create a sense of home for its residents, including a health and wellness focus and experiences that support that. 

“We owe it to future consumers and residents to figure this out — to help them figure out what they heed and find ways to help them seek that out,” Gilchrist said.