By Jess Stonefield
As someone involved in seniors housing investment, the issue of affordability is quite important to me. I’m aware, daily, that the communities in which we invest are aimed at private-pay Americans — those who can afford to pay monthly premiums in cash from their retirement funds or family savings.
What’s troubling is not a lack of quality seniors housing. We have that covered for now. The problem is that, just like poverty, affordability impacts certain segments of our population disproportionately. This means that while we tackle the issue of affordability in seniors housing, we must also acknowledge the greater issue of diversity.
Some get left behind
Those of us in the seniors housing industry work hard to overcome the negative, olden-day perception of nursing homes that were dark, lonely and sad. In fact, seniors housing has come so far that we even have celebrities like Jimmy Buffett investing in them to create community “experiences.” Out with the old image, in with the new.
But is the “new” wave of seniors housing available to everyone? Consider the following:
• White workers are twice as likely to have savings in retirement accounts compared with black and Latino workers.
• Research shows the poverty rate for black older adults is three times as high as the poverty rate for white older adults (22.5 percent versus 7.8 percent).
Thus, as many Americans look to use their retirement savings or sell a family home to pay for quality senior care, many seniors — especially those in minority populations — simply don’t have the savings. This leaves those seniors with few affordable care options, which of course leads to less diverse senior communities overall.
Integration requires effort
While we as an industry are starting to shine a greater light on issues of affordability across the sector, we also need to shine that light deeper into the heart of the issue. We need to understand affordability will impact different sectors of our society disproportionately.
We also need to understand that operators can do something about it. Not sure what? Start with the following.
• Make diversity a community-wide goal. Take efforts to make minorities feel welcome, whether you are having an open house or marketing within the greater community. Let the community know your goal is to create a senior community reflective of your local population.
While there are regulations that prevent reserving rooms based on culture or heritage, you may find that members of the community are willing to help sponsor monthly rent for certain potential residents as rooms become available. Get creative. Find ways to make your community’s diversity flourish.
• Open your doors. Many minority families who care for their elders are also caring for young children and working themselves. Consider getting licensed and making or reserving space to offer day programs. This can alleviate the stress of caregivers who still wish for their loved ones to age at home, but need backup to maintain some sense of normalcy in their lives.
• Take culture into account when building facilities. The demographics of America are changing. When choosing amenities, select those that appeal to a wide array of ethnicities, be it food, salon care, music or communal environments. Adopting diversity as a culture in your community will only enhance the overall well-being of your entire resident population.
• Take it personally. Consider what it would feel like to be the only white, Hispanic or black resident in a senior community — to be removed from those with a similar cultural background at a time when you need comfort and familiarity the most.
We’ve all seen the movie “Coco.” Consider how important music, photos and art are in memory care, as evidenced so beautifully in the movie. Try to ensure that a wide variety of those things are available so that all residents can “see themselves” as they used to be.
As the seniors housing market continues to advance, and the quality of care and resident well-being continues to grow, we have a responsibility to ensure that all segments of our society may benefit to the fullest. I encourage every seniors housing leader to do an inventory of the ways their community is supporting diversity — and how much more they can do to make it a priority in today’s world.
Jess Stonefield is a communications expert for investment firm Senior Living Fund. She is also a contributing writer on aging, technology, mental health and more for Changing Aging, The Mighty and Next Avenue.