Are We Missing the Mark with Baby Boomers?

Independence, technology and affordability hold the keys to winning them over.

By Dean Maddalena, President, StudioSIX5

What do boomers want? 

It’s the question on everyone’s mind as we near the entry of the first baby boomers into senior living. Approximately 10,000 baby boomers turn 65 each day, and with them comes a shift in the industry to meet expectations. 

There has been a massive shake-up in senior living looking toward what’s next. But in an industry obsessed with innovation, where are we still missing the mark?

Aging in place

Boomers’ perception of aging and long-term care exists in one of two realms: a blend of medical and hospitality environments — the senior living community — and aging at home. 

Today’s senior living communities operate on an institutional model of efficiency, but in pursuit of safety the tradeoff is residents lose many the comforts of home. The main disruptor in the quest to attract boomers won’t be competition between communities, it will be competition between communities and the home. 

We know that the benefits of communities far outweigh the comforts of home. Social isolation increases with age. Even with technological advancements, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all care model for aging in place. Home healthcare services, while effective in supporting the physical changes of aging, can’t match the opportunities for socialization that exist outside of the home. This gives senior living providers an opportunity to adapt.

Boomers aren’t interested in senior living or “senior” anything, for that matter. They wouldn’t call an apartment complex a “millennial living community,” so why would they be interested in housing for seniors? 

In preparing for boomers, we must be careful to focus not only on addressing their changing health needs, but also the expectations they have for their aging lifestyle.

Independence is key

Baby boomers skew younger than today’s senior living resident — the oldest of the boomers are 74 while the age of the typical resident is 85. 

This group will likely be in better health by the time they age into senior living communities. In turn, they will have more independence at an older age and less need for acute healthcare infrastructure and assistance in everyday life. This makes independence and freedom of choice a huge consideration when choosing an entry-level community.

Most senior living communities today are in suburbs or mixed residential/retail neighborhoods. Location has largely kept seniors removed from “what’s happening.” 

Boomers are more interested in being connected to the community at large, not just their senior living community. Proximity to urban density, where one can walk to shopping, social activities and restaurants, is more important than specialized healthcare services when taking the next step into senior living. 

There is also no desire for a community where all the activity is confined to walls and segregated by hallways. We should instead look to the trend toward multi-use urban dwelling and the revitalization of urban live/work/shop spaces for inspiration. 

If the home is our biggest competitor, we can’t overlook the importance of the home office. Boomers are working longer than previous generations. Many have already adapted to the freedom of a work-from-home lifestyle. 

Coworking spaces are an attractive amenity that supports this new aspect of the aging boomer lifestyle. These areas meet the desire for connectedness and diversity, and allow them to maintain a level of personal and professional independence as their mobility needs change.

Modern seniors want diversity

As senior living designs trend toward progressive, multi-use spaces, they must also become more inclusive of multi-generational experiences. Boomers want to be where the action is, but beyond the location and design of the building, they want options. 

Watered-down amenity programs aren’t going to cut it. This is a generation that grew up subverting expectations and as they age, they will have little interest in stereotypical senior activities.

Providers should look toward curating a lifestyle with programming. Across the U.S., communities are adopting programs to attract younger, more active seniors. One community in Tucson recently opened a craft brewery on the premises, with plans to offer specialty craft beer in community dining venues and sales across the state. Programs like this not only open the community to new revenue streams but also give the residents a sense of pride in their community. 

Another area in need of improvement is outdoor amenities beyond pools, fire pits or putting greens. Offering destination outdoor amenities facilitates socialization with less structure and more opportunities for intergenerational commingling. 

Produce from a community garden could be used for cooking classes and hosting farm-to-table dinners. Likewise, an outdoor theater could host movie nights for residents, families and friends. 

Opening the community to nonresidents can also become a source of revenue to help offset the rising costs of building in desirable areas. Beyond bringing the community in, providers should also look toward solutions that draw residents out. Special deals with local restaurants, hotels and entertainment venues help boomers take advantage of their new urban locale. 

Embrace technology

Silicon Valley is undoubtedly betting on boomers aging at home. 

With the advent of telemedicine and new service applications coming online daily, the odds are stacked against senior living communities. Services like Uber, GrubHub and Instacart are wildly popular with seniors, easing the challenges of dining, driving and shopping for themselves. Alexa and Google Home are capable of scheduled check-ins and communicating in case of an emergency. Smart home technology controls locks, thermostats and even alerts seniors of visitors from one device.

For boomers, built-in technology is no longer novelty; it’s necessity. The industry needs to get ahead of the need for scalable technology capabilities in planning community infrastructure. Beyond Wi-Fi, business centers or tablets, we need to anticipate coming advancements in technology and how to incorporate them into communities.

Don’t forget about affordability

Meeting expectations of the next generation is important, but innovations are wasted if boomers can’t afford to live in the communities. 

Rising construction and labor costs are challenging, but the issue of affordability will do little to curb the high expectations of boomers. The largest failing in the industry now is the lack of options for the middle market — a segment made largely of the boomers we’re so desperate to attract. 

Do we look to existing older and underutilized communities to fill this gap in affordable housing? It’s a possible solution, but in order to compete with the home, communities also need to check the boxes for independence, diversity and technology. 

Can we find a balance for creating affordable, boomer-friendly communities, or will the constant influx of new innovations end up pushing them toward aging at home? 

Dean Maddalena co-founded StudioSIX5 in 2003 and serves as the firm’s president.