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How New Leaders, Tech, Markets Will Define Senior Living’s ‘Transitional Decade’

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Senior living operators are getting serious about data collection and the middle-market, all while they are redefining operations for a new generation of residents.

That’s not to say the industry is only now starting to talk about these topics – for years, I have spoken with senior living leaders who have said that these are big priorities. But for all the industry’s talk, I haven’t yet seen big movement in these areas.

But progress now is accelerating. At least, that’s my impression after meeting with operators and attending sessions at the American Seniors Housing Association (ASHA) conference in Miami last week .

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The oldest baby boomer is turning 80 in just two years, and it’s no secret they are bringing with them new wants and needs. The industry is also undergoing its own generational shift as new leaders take the reins and long-standing ones retire. That will infuse the industry with new ideas in the years to come, as Nexus Insights Founder and longtime industry thought leader Bob Kramer — newly inducted into the ASHA Hall of Fame — told me in Miami.

“Both on the nonprofit and for-profit side, we’re going to see a major shift in leaders, who will be in their 40s and 50s, not their 60s and 70s,” Kramer told me. “They have a different approach to data, they have a different approach to technology. And they aren’t wedded to, ‘This is the way we’ve always done it before.’”

And I see such shifts underway at companies like LCS, Priority Life Care and Vitality Living, all of which are trying to rethink senior living for a new era.

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In this members-only SHN+ Update, I analyze the recent ASHA conference and offer key takeaways, including:

  • The senior living data effort is kicking into high gear in 2024
  • Middle-market approaches are gaining traction
  • How an ongoing “transition period” will create further momentum

Data efforts get serious

For years, senior living operators have talked about the need to collect and share more real-time data with their partners, often on the ownership side. The idea is that such data is needed to better align companies on community operations, and give them better visibility into ongoing operational trends as they happen.

But as important as operators have said data collection and analysis is, I haven’t seen many companies truly invest in the processes needed to have complicated data operations.

In 2024, that is changing with companies like LCS. The organization first began heading down the path of data collection two years ago when it hired its first data scientist. Now, LCS has four data scientists on the payroll, and on Jan. 1 the Des Moines, Iowa-based company brought a new reporting tool online that newly appointed CFO and Chief Investment Officer Dan Lahey called an “important win.”

Using the dashboard, LCS leaders can view an up-to-date tally of occupied units, available entry-fee dollars, how many days a unit has been on the market and other “real patterns.”

“It’s a new discipline for us, … actually having data scientists on staff is just a different animal,” Lahey said. “Sometimes that means they’re challenging preconceived assumptions; they’re also painting the picture of what the next opportunities [are] that we can unlock.”

The data is helping LCS make smarter decisions about the incoming generation of baby boomers, according to President Chris Bird.

“We’re going to have a much more dedicated wellness platform for not just the customers today, but the customers of the future … based on all the research,” he said.

Lahey added: “We’ve known that senior living provides better outcomes than the alternatives. But we want the data that proves it.”

LCS isn’t the only operator that has put plenty of time and effort into rethinking its data collection. Brentwood, Tennessee-based Vitality Living spent time last year changing its approach to data collection and analysis by shifting away from using a professional employment organization (PEO).

Though that was a costly and timely process, CEO Chris Guay told me he thinks it will pay off in terms of more efficient operations.

“We’re trying to improve the same fundamentals that we do in the sales world, with speed-to-lead and how you interact with your customers,” Guay said. “We are trying to really build those tools in the people side of the business, too.”

Middle-market becoming more tangible

Another big takeaway from the conference was that catering to the middle-market is becoming a much more tangible possibility for senior living operators.

I have had many conversations with operators who have told me, essentially, that there is no margin in middle-market senior living. But new models are proving that assumption is incorrect, and one in particular was on display during a panel at ASHA.

As part of attending ASHA conferences, Senior Housing News agrees to keep panels off-the-record, so I can’t go into detail on what was covered there. But I can share that one of the panelists was Rev. Kenneth Daniel of United Church Homes, a model I covered in our last SHN+ Update. The panel, moderated by Juniper Communities CEO Lynne Katzmann, also included leaders from PACE and Pine Park Health.

Marion, Ohio-based UCH has five middle-market communities with 450 units, and another five in development or in lease-up totaling more than 500 units. The organization was the subject of a recent case study from the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care (NIC), which detailed how the organization achieved resident rates as low as 53% below local independent living communities.

As I detailed earlier this month, UCH broke the middle-market into three categories for low-, medium- and high- middle-market earners, with specific rates and services tailored to each. That approach not only allows the organization to achieve middle-market rates for those who need it the most, but also make decent margins.

The simple fact that there was a middle-market panel featuring speakers from PACE and the non-profit sector at ASHA – which is primarily geared toward the industry’s for-profit sector – is an indication that the middle-market is becoming a bigger focus, according to Kramer.

Kramer, who believes that the future of the middle-market lies in better public-private collaboration, is heartened that PACE and other alternative payment models are part of the middle-market conversation. And he believes that the industry must now demonstrate to lawmakers that it can be “part of the solution.”

“We will have leverage if the government thinks we’re legitimately there to help them,” he said.

‘Transitional decades’

The larger trends of more granular data collection and new innovative middle-market models fit into what Kramer called senior living’s ongoing “transitional decade.”

Kramer identified several other similar transitional decades in the past: 1940 to 1950, 1980 to 1990, and 2020 to 2030.

The industry’s transition period is underscored by the ongoing shift of leadership from the current generation of CEOs to the next class.

The industry’s current transition period is one marked by new opportunities to demonstrate the industry’s valuable place in society – and to that end, I hope that the next generation of leaders reflects the diversity of society at large, in order to better serve more people and attract a wider pool of talent to the field.

There are already several younger leaders who are not only bringing greater diversity into the industry’s C-suites, but are pushing actively for better representation in leadership and at all levels. One such leader who I spoke with at ASHA is Sevy Petras, who not only is CEO of Priority Life Care but launched the Her Stories podcast, to share the origin stories of women who built careers in senior living. The aim is to “reveal the invisible ladder, one origin story at a time.”

This transition period also will be marked by new scrutiny from the public. The very day I returned to Chicago from ASHA, the Senate Special Committee on Aging held a hearing dedicated to assisted living, in the wake of the Washington Post’s reports on elopements in memory care.

“Up until recently, we were playing in New Haven, we’re now on Broadway. We were a niche alternative asset class, we’ve now moved onto the main stage,” he said, adding, “The good news is, ‘Hey, we have arrived.’ The bad news is, when you’ve arrived, those critics on Broadway are a bear.”

In essence, Kramer believes that now is an exciting time for senior living operators – as long as they are willing to be creative.

“If we think we’re going to try out the same product the same way – and have even the same penetration rate, let alone a higher penetration rate – I think we’re naive,” he said.

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