A future that's built on a solid foundation

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David Schless, president of the American Seniors Housing Association
David Schless, president of the American Seniors Housing Association

The American Seniors Housing Association celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2016. ASHA President David Schless talked recently with Senior Editor Lois A. Bowers about how seniors housing has changed over the years and what the future holds.

Q: What was the impetus for ASHA?

The discussion probably started in 1990. The American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging (now LeadingAge) represented the not-for-profit side of the business, and the American Health Care Association at that time was focused on skilled nursing. The Assisted Living Federation of America (now Argentum) hadn't been started.

Several primarily for-profit companies wanted to have an organization that would do work on Capitol Hill on behalf of owners and operators. There really wasn't a group doing that. ASHA started at the National Multifamily Housing Council as its seniors house committee, because many of these companies had interests in both multifamily as well as senior housing. I was really in the right place at the right time. They were really a tremendous organization to get us started.

There was never a desire to create a huge organization or an organization that was going to be all things to all people. It was very focused.

Q: How has the seniors housing industry changed over the past 25 years?

A: The industry has become much more professional and much more sophisticated, at the corporate level and at the property level.

We began trying to collect financial and operational performance data around 1992, in part to convince the capital markets that this was a business that people could be profitable in. In the mid-to-late 1980s and early 1990s, plenty of companies were unsuccessful. Bill Colson from Holiday Retirement, John Erickson from Erickson Retirement Communities, Chuck and Karen Lytle from Leisure Care and Bill Sheriff at American Retirement Corp. — these were people who were successful and were extraordinarily helpful to the industry because they were willing to share data. The data and showcasing the successes — which was one of the things that I think ASHA really did well in that early period — was crucial for the industry.

I don't think the industry is where it ultimately will be on the data side, but it's much, much more sophisticated in terms of what we know about the business, the residents and their families.

Q: Going forward, what do you think the industry will need to do to ensure that it meets the needs of today's and tomorrow's older adults?

Seniors housing, being primarily a private-pay industry, has to continue to try to understand the desires and needs of prospective residents and, in the case of more frail seniors, their families. That will be a constant challenge both for those trying to serve the more active and independent senior as well as those that are serving the more frail who need more services. You have to provide a product that's perceived as a good value and as providing great care. It's not a given. The industry has a very bright future, but the industry will need to continue to innovate and be appealing and provide value to the customer.

Q: How are things progressing with the Where You Live Matters consumer education campaign, which was launched in early 2016?

A: When we look at some of the metrics, we definitely see some very positive things happening.

Many companies saw the benefits of trying to better educate the consumer. We don't serve more than maybe 8% or 10% of the population that we could be serving. If the campaign can help somebody make a decision three to size months earlier, then the impact on the business is enormous.

This resource helps the industry as a whole but also helps the person at the property level who is trying to lease units or market a community. We've worked on a toolkit to help people in the industry learn how the site can be used. It's at www.JoinWYLM.org. We'll continue to add videos and other content that is useful to consumers.

Q: What other initiatives are underway at ASHA?

A: We've put about one-third of our budget into funding research to better understand who lives in our buildings and who doesn't but should. Currently, we are funding a couple of different university studies that we think will be extremely helpful to the industry. One is looking at strategies for developing collaboration between families and staff in assisted living settings. The other is focusing on strategies that help seniors transition into senior living.

Also, we recently started a program called Rising Leaders to help nurture the development of about 90 people who have been designated by executive boards or company representatives as next-generation leaders. Programming involves our members who have had remarkable careers and experiences.

The grounding force of ASHA, however, is advocacy. We are up on Capitol Hill almost every day trying to provide a voice for the industry on any type of issue that would impact the ownership or operation of this type of product. 

We're really very focused on the federal piece. Although we don't see ourselves leading the charge on the state issues, we believe we can be helpful there on a selective basis.


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