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A new report from Mather Institute is a call to action for an industry-wide conversation on the lack of diversity in continuing care retirement / life plan communities.

Working Toward Greater Resident Diversity in Life Plan Communities,” released today, explores reasons for the lack of greater ethnic and racial diversity in such communities. It also identifies strategies for providers to increase resident diversity.

The study was designed with Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center and conducted last fall with 265 community-at-large Black or African American, Latinx and South Asian older adults, as well as 25 one-on-one interviews. Researchers also interviewed life plan community residents involved in efforts to increase resident diversity.

The concept for the study came from participants in Mather’s Age Well Study on the health and wellness effects of residing in CCRCs. Cate O’Brien, PhD, senior vice president of Mather Institute, said there was a general sense of a lack of racial and ethnic diversity in life plan communities, but no one had stopped to consider the reasons behind that fact.

“Their interest really got us thinking,” O’Brien told McKnight’s Senior Living, adding that researchers found only one other study, from the Cedar Grove Institute for Sustainable Communities, at the time that really dove into the issue. That 2018 study was based on a small sample of residents from one North Carolina senior living community. 

So Mather pursued a broader study of the issue.

Limited awareness of life plan communities

Among the notable findings in the report was a general lack of awareness of life plan communities: 42% of study participants were not familiar with or had little awareness of them. In fact, only 7% of participants said they planned to move into a retirement community.

The majority of study participants (64%) said that they planned to remain in their homes, and 18% said they planned to downsize but remain in the community at large. Another 3% indicated that they would live with family members.

But Mushirea Khan, PhD, senior research manager at Mather Institute, told McKnight’s Senior Living that there were different drivers for the desire to age in place based on cultural attitudes. 

“Many participants said, ‘We want our elders to remain with us in the community because they provide that wisdom, that knowledge base’; they are mentors to youth — you don’t want to lose that,” Khan said. 

Half of the participants said that it is important to live in a racially and ethnically diverse community, but the study also found a preference by individuals to live among people of the same race or ethnicity. When polled, 71% of study participants said that the people in their social network fall completely or mostly within their own racial/ethnic group. 

Concerns about poor treatment from other residents emerged as a prominent barrier to moving into a life plan community.

“That echoes the general literature when you look at the experiences of discrimination or microaggression across the life course in persons of color,” Khan said. 

Challenges reveal opportunities

Those insights, according to Mather Institute, provide opportunities for life plan communities to promote resident diversity, equity and inclusion.

O’Brien said that life plan communities must consider the interests of ethnically and racially diverse individuals and what those prospective residents want to see before moving into a community, including culturally specific food and activities that respect and honor cultural differences.

Among the recommendations from the report for individual communities are implementing a formal organization-driven DEI committee, evaluating organizational blind spots, offering culture-specific events and programs, establishing a presence in diverse greater communities through outreach and marketing efforts, creating learning opportunities for staff members and residents to expand knowledge of cultural beliefs and traditions, encouraging residents to become “diversity ambassadors,” and enhancing DEI efforts, staff training and intentional hiring.

Promoting a community’s diverse offerings via word of mouth proved to be one of the most effective forms of advertising to diverse greater communities, according to the Mather Institute.

“Current resident champions are really important when it comes to spreading the word in the community,” Khan said, adding that faith leaders also emerged as important connections to dispel negative stereotypes about communities. “It’s all about nurturing community relationships.”

Although some life plan community operators are already engaging in some of those practices, O’Brien said, no quick fix exists for the challenge of attracting a more diverse resident population. 

“We didn’t expect to find any easy answers, but we think this is such an important issue that we wanted to really delve in and try to understand the issue for the prospective resident population as much as we possibly could,” O’Brien said. “We’re hoping that deepening that understanding will help provide more of a foundation for operators to take additional steps. Even if they make a small difference we feel like it’s worth the effort and worth engaging with the topic.”

The Mather Institute will release its full report this month on its website.