InterFace Seniors Housing West Speakers: Engagement is the Key to Care

by Jeff Shaw

LOS ANGELES — Baby Boomers and Millennials have more in common than we might realize. That is because today’s seniors, like most Millennials, are seeking out engaging activities that connect them to a fulfilling purpose.

That’s according to panelists at InterFace Conference Group’s Seniors Housing West conference, held March 1 at the Omni Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles. The event attracted nearly 400 industry professionals.

“Today’s seniors need programming that is meaningful and impactful,” said Loren Shook, president, CEO and founder of Silverado and the conference’s keynote. “Baby Boomers want to have a purpose. They will be demanding, they will expect innovation and, for them, calculated risks are essential for life.”

Competition Crowds the Field

While panelists are aware that not all seniors housing operators are created equal, they noted that new development, combined with the resort-like amenities now found in traditional multifamily properties, has created increased competition in the market.

“The first wave of Boomers is turning 72,” said John Cochrane, president and CEO of HumanGood and a State of the Industry and 2018 Outlook panelist. “They’ve been here for a few years now.”

“It’s fascinating to me that we’re talking about occupancy struggles when we’ve got the available residency,” continued Cochrane. “This should be a fishing hatchery for us, but we have a problem in terms of meeting the needs and expectations of today’s consumer.”

Fellow panelist Tana Gall, CEO of Blue Harbor Senior Living, agreed. Gall said that it’s no longer enough to be the closest seniors housing facility in terms of distance, nor is it enough to simply offer outdoor activities such as golf. Today’s seniors want to live out their final years with renewed purpose, and they want to continue to forge strong connections well into their twilight years.

“There’s so much new product coming online,” she said. “In some markets, we’re fighting for every resident that comes in. We’re working really hard to maintain rates and we won’t concess on care, but families are now coming in and asking ‘so what kind of deal are you going to give me?’”

This has led to a bit of shuffling in terms of capital allocation strategy. More funds are now going toward interactive experiences, including pizza ovens, herb gardens and display kitchens, and to convenience factors, including dining facilities equipped with iPads for ordering, strong Wi-Fi connections and grab-and-go kiosks that bill directly to the resident’s room.

“It’s annoying that people don’t think seniors are engaging in technology,” said Kevin Merrill, business development director at Inviacom and Investing in Technology that Drives Revenue and Improves Revenue Care panelist. “When surveyed, many senior living executive directors think only 40 percent to 50 percent of seniors go online. It’s actually more like 82 percent of seniors go online every day, and almost 75 percent of residents are online for more than two hours a day.”

Merrill also noted that about 62 percent of the residents his firm surveyed typically go online to research health problems, handle online banking and interact on social media.

“From a provider standpoint, we’re seeing them say ‘I don’t think our residents are on the internet,’” he continued. “Trust me, they are.”

Data-Driven Communities

Communities equipped with smart-home features like fall censors, Alexa and iPads for ordering food also provide a great opportunity for operators to gather data. When interpreted correctly, this data creates predictive analytics that can drive the direction of amenities and services in the future.

Technology also provides an ideal way for nursing and care staff to communicate with one another, family members and patients, elevating the level of pre- and post-care follow up for residents. A lack of quality staff is also one of the issues seniors housing community leaders are trying to combat with technology.

“The labor force is what keeps me awake at night,” said Cochrane. “Attracting and retaining staff in expensive markets like San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles and San Diego is a real challenge. The wage pressures are not going away. We’re looking inside and outside for ideas on how to better manage our business and attract and retain talent.”

Wages that are not viewed as competitive, increasing participation in healthcare programs and a lack of affordable housing were some of the largest issues communities are trying to overcome in terms of staffing. Ken Roos, chief revenue officer of OnShift and an Attracting, Retaining Talent, Best Marketing Practices and What Keeps Operators Up at Night panelist, believed there may be a bigger culprit at work behind the scenes.

“We need to create a workforce of choice for the Millennial generation,” he said. “We need to think harder about what goes into our job listings. We know the job’s duties; what we should be listing is why you should come work for us. You’re marketing to employees just like you’re marketing to residents.”

Communities should be further inspired to incentivize employees because turnover is not just expensive, but detrimental to the resident’s experience.

“You need to avoid staff turnover,” said Alan Plush, partner at HealthTrust and an Outlook for Seniors Housing Development panelist. “Residents really get to know the people who work there. If you have a 50 percent to 70 percent turnover, it’s disquieting. These places and these people are an extension of the residents’ homes and families.”

Sit-stand desks, flexible schedules and open workspaces are a few features to attract the Millennial workforce, panelists noted. Though, like the seniors they serve, this generation is craving more connection and meaning.  This has led some operators to allow employees to bring their children to work, while others have started offering cell phone packages and emergency funds. A select few are even harnessing the powers of social media to keep their newest staff members engaged and excited to come to work.

“You need to look at your team members and have them tweet or post on Facebook,” said Jacqueline Smith, vice president of operations at Cadence Senior Living and an Attracting and Retaining Talent panelist. “They should communicate with their larger peer group. This casts a wider net for job applicants and makes new employees feel welcome.”

Fellow panelist Courtney Siegel, senior vice president of operations for Oakmont Management Group, noted that her firm looks at the strategies companies like Amazon and Starbucks employ to land the top talent. This includes providing employees with a premium account to Spotify. Gall believes that whether the effort involves recording welcome messages to new employees or a good, old-fashioned handwritten letter, the most important aspect of these endeavors is that they’re meaningful and from the heart.

“The length of stay for residents is one thing, but the length of stay for employees is another,” she said. “It’s crazy to see how many employees don’t make it 90 days.”

“We provide handwritten notes to a new employee from a supervisor, give them a special workspace, have their laptop all set up, get their uniform and nametag personalized, and pair them with a mentor. We also celebrate their milestones, including their first 30 days, 90 days and one year on the job.”

Minimizing staff turnover is one of the prime ways to minimize resident turnover, panelists noted. Another way is to take a page out of the hotels that created world-class amenities and the multifamily properties that are now capitalizing on them.

“The average age of our resident used to be 78; now it’s 83,” said Peter Martin, managing director of equity research for JMP Securities and the State of the Industry panel moderator, emphasizing that now is more important than ever to retain the existing residents. “We look at the seniors housing market like a hotel. You have to reinvent yourself week after week to maintain length of stay or expand upon it.”

Creating novel solutions through innovative programming and technology is essential to stand out in today’s field, Cochrane said, particularly as multifamily products continue to expand their spectrum of services.

“This is an experience-driven world, not just a healthcare delivery platform,” he said. “To the extent that we’ve homogenized our field, we’ve done a real disservice to that field and to ourselves and the ones we serve.”

“This is also a data-driven world. You have to provide outcomes through data management,” continued Cochrane. “We’re missing the real story here. We need experienced data management and we need to understand the residents and staff who comprise our core business.”

— Nellie Day

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