As Executive Director of Atria at the Arboretum, a senior apartment community in Austin, Texas, it’s no surprise to me that COVID-19 had a devastating impact on the retirement living and senior living sectors, especially in communities with more advanced senior care like assisted living, skilled nursing, and memory care. The overwhelming amount of loss can be attributed to the advanced age and health of the residents in these communities, the close quarters they share (think semi-private rooms), and their smaller social settings and dining halls.
However, for those exact same reasons, independent retirement living communities have fared relatively better. Unlike advanced care communities, the age and health of residents in these communities worked in their favor. Add to that private apartments and larger and multiple dining venues, and these communities have been able to bounce back more quickly from required quarantining, visitor restrictions, and the elimination of group activities and social gatherings. In fact, in 2022, retirement communities are more popular than ever. Here’s why.
1. The Results Of The Pandemic
During the peak of the pandemic and the months immediately following, while families were avoiding advanced care communities for their loved ones, retirement living residents were still shopping for communities and actively making moves. Don’t get me wrong, this made me very happy, but still, I was somewhat surprised by the realization. As part of the sales cycle, we do in-depth discovery conversations with all potential new residents, and when asked their number one reason for considering a move during a pandemic, the overall response was not just one thing but a combination of things.
Front and center: the isolation retirees said they felt while in their own homes, cut off from family and friends and the things they did for entertainment and socialization. Next up was the desire for the amenities an all-inclusive retirement living community could provide — communities where things like meals, housekeeping, transportation, and activities are provided and where socialization opportunities still existed, eliminating the need for retirees to manage these things on their own.
The one other thread I heard over and over was excitement about a perceived firewall retirement communities put in place, including strong protocols followed to keep the residents safe. Protocols like repeated COVID testing for residents and staff and the opportunity to get a vaccine and or booster, when available, in the community instead of residents having to go in search of these services.
2. New Retirement Community Options
For comparison, let’s remove advanced senior care communities from the equation and focus specifically on the independent retiree sector of the industry. It is essentially made up of three types of retirement living communities: 55+ retirement living apartment buildings, continuing care retirement communities (also referred to as “CCRCs” or “Buy-ins”), and lastly the nationally owned chains of all-inclusive retirement resort communities. Let’s take a quick look at their offerings individually.
55+ Retirement Living Apartments
The 55+ retirement apartment building offers retirees apartments they can furnish and decorate as they desire but no amenities. Residents are responsible for their own utilities, meals, transportation, activities, et cetera. Typically, during the pandemic these types of communities offered no COVID-19 screening protocols and each resident was left to fend for him or herself, making the perception of a safe environment simply that, a perception.
Continuing Care Retirement Communities
Next up is the CCRC model. These communities offer retirees all levels of care under one roof, in one community. In this type of setting, retirees pledge a large sum of money and are guaranteed continuing care as needed for the remainder of their lives. Most residents start out in independent living, where the amenities are endless and progress to other levels of care if and when needed. Because these communities are considered resident-owned, residents were in charge and demanded strong protocols, which were mostly adapted to provide an adequate level of safety and protection.
Resort Retirement Living
Lastly, let’s talk about the large corporations offering a combination of resort retirement living, high-end assisted living, and state-of-the-art memory care communities. Although all levels of care are offered by these corporations, they are autonomous, and in most cases, different levels of care are offered in different locations. It’s important to note that assisted living and memory care communities are state-regulated, so very strong protocols are followed. The silver lining here is these protocols are carried over into the resort retirement living communities as a best practice, providing an extremely high level of safety and protection for the community.
3. Retirees Making Decisions For Themselves
For those retirees who were still holding out on making a move, as COVID-19 became less of an issue and protocols started relaxing or lifting, in many cases, the effects of the pandemic remained. Retirees started questioning and considering the right time to make a life change. The big question many face is Do I make decisions now when I’m still living an active life and in control of my destiny, or do I wait until my health and mobility start to decline and my loved ones have to make the decisions on my behalf? The overwhelming majority of retirees I spoke with wanted to be in control of their own lives while they still could. Many were hesitant to give up their homes but quickly realized what they would gain far outweighed what they would be giving up. The thought of never having to worry about the maintenance, expense, and upkeep of their home was an appealing thought, which for many would ultimately become a reality.
Retirement living today is not what it was 40 or 50 years ago. The terms old folks’ home and nursing home were commonly used to describe every level of retirement living but mostly referred to places where you were “put” by your loved ones when you could no longer care for yourself. But today’s retirement living is just that: retirement with an emphasis on living.
In today’s retirement living communities, socialization is front and center. Dining choices, events, activities, and fitness are right outside your apartment door. Live entertainment, lectors, continuing education, yoga, exercise classes, and book clubs just to name a few occur daily. Add that to spacious and beautifully appointed customizable apartments featuring full kitchens, walk-in closets, and terraces — many with incredible views — that make these communities extra appealing.
In fact, you get all the comforts of home but the worry of maintenance belongs to someone else. Gourmet meals are served in elaborate dining rooms, housekeeping comes once a week, in-house full-service salons and spas cater to your every need while a sedan is on standby to take you anywhere you want to go. And all this for one reasonable monthly rate.
4. Retirement Communities Adjust To Active Retirees
Keep in mind that these types of communities with such high-end amenities have not always been available or even offered. For a bit of history, around 2010, industry analysts started predicting an onslaught of retirees, mainly baby boomers, turning 65 in the next 7 to 10 years and warning that without adequate senior living communities, the country was ill-prepared to accommodate the masses. Shortly thereafter, senior living and assisted living communities started popping up in all four corners of the country.
It was deemed the fastest-growing industry by many investors and industry analysts preaching the “if you build it, they will come” mentality. Fortunately for baby boomers and unfortunately for these investors, being 65 years old today is very different than it was 50 or 60 years ago. Today, we are all living more active and much healthier lifestyles, which means we are living longer and doing more. So instead of seeing a line of people waiting to sign on the dotted line, builders of these communities quickly realized the so-called onslaught of baby boomers were nowhere near ready for this type of living.
So, with their main pool of prospects gone, for now, what was once thought of as a slam dunk solid investment in senior living became not so slam dunk and a really tough sell. Senior living communities quickly realized they would have to change the norm and get creative to fill their buildings. What transpired from there was an amenity-driven war between communities, and shortly thereafter, the “senior living” community model quickly became the “retirement living resort” model, or as it was referred to in the early stages, the “stationary cruise ship” model.
5. The Refocus On “What Is Retirement?”
What was once a CCRC or buy-in model requiring a large deposit for care you may never need became a one-year lease commitment. Soon thereafter, that one-year lease became a month-to-month lease, eliminating any long-term commitment, meaning no monetary risk other than the expense of a move. Communities also started furnishing several apartments for seasonal rentals or respite stays and also allowing prospective residents to stay for a short period of time to get the full experience by sampling food and enjoying all the amenities.
This reconfigured business model is now thriving in a very competitive environment. Communities are no longer simply offering senior living but promising a retirement lifestyle with every bell and whistle available. What started out as senior living communities for baby boomers has turned into resort-like options for anyone over 55 who dreams of a hassle-free, fun-filled, and engaging lifestyle, all at an affordable rate and with no risk.
The point to absorb here is it doesn’t matter if you are an active baby boomer in your 60s or 70s, or a bit less active in your 80s, 90s, or even older, there is always a solution that will fit your lifestyle and needs to a tee. All you have to do is look.
Editor’s Note: Learn more about Atria at the Arboretum, where Scott serves as Executive Director, here.