Editor’s note: As part of the 40th anniversary of McKnight’s, McKnight’s Senior Living and McKnight’s Long-Term Care News are recognizing 40 notable newsmakers. Each week, the brands will highlight a new, high-profile leader from the past four decades. Previously published installments of the series are posted here.

Those hoping to get a sneak peek into the future of senior living might consider studying the playbook of Toledo, OH-based Welltower.

The $40 billion real estate investment trust, which consistently earns spots at the top of the American Seniors Housing Association’s ASHA 50 ranking of largest senior living owners and Argentum’s list of biggest REITs, has displayed innovative thinking under Thomas J. “Tom” DeRosa, who has been CEO since April 2014.

Assisted living and memory care “may become more consequential” in the healthcare system, he said in mid-2018, pointing to the complex deal that in part saw Welltower become an owner of HCR ManorCare and its Arden Courts memory care communities as “the best example that one can point to” of how that system is changing.

The deal came almost three years after publication of an academic study funded by Welltower, two other REITs and six senior living companies that found that “new integrated payment and delivery models targeting residential care facilities might prove fruitful,” given the high rates of chronic illness, functional dependence and healthcare use among residents.

Since that study, Welltower has announced an effort to further position senior living as a low-cost care setting of choice within the nation’s healthcare system through a collaboration with CareMore Health in some of the senior living communities in its portfolio. And earlier this year, Welltower announced what it said was a first-of-its-kind partnership between the REIT and a major academic health system, in which Thomas Jefferson University and Jefferson Health clinicians will work to address social determinants of health for older adults by managing senior living residents’ full continuum of care.

Welltower-commissioned efforts sought to establish quality standards for assisted living and memory care and found that city-dwelling baby boomers want to stay there as they age. Acting on the findings of the latter study, the REIT has developed two senior living high-rises in Manhattan with Hines and has another New York City project with Atria Senior Living, Related and Spitzer.

On the forefront of another industry trend, Welltower launched a middle-market 55-plus brand, welltowerLiving, earlier this year. The REIT also has prioritized efforts related to environmental, social and corporate governance. 

Now, even with what he termed “pronounced” financial effects of the pandemic, DeRosa remains optimistic about the future of senior living.

“Many questions remain unanswered as to the duration and ultimate impact of COVID-19. However, what we can say with great certainty is that the long-term drivers of our business remain firmly intact,” he said on the REIT’s most recent earnings call. “The population is growing older. The need for value-based healthcare is as important as ever, and addressing social determinants of health will only grow in relevance.”