PHILADELPHIA — After a pandemic that severely impacted occupancy rates across seniors housing — setting and then re-setting record lows — occupancy has rebounded, and all signs point to a strong recovery, according to CEOs from top companies in the industry.
“Occupancy has clearly been on the mind of a lot of folks,” said JP LoMonaco, president of Valuation & Information Group. LoMonaco was kicking off a session at France Media’s InterFace Seniors Housing Northeast conference in Philadelphia on Dec. 2. The session was titled “Power Panel: CEOs Discuss the State of the Industry.”
Other panelists included Wendy Nowokunski, president, Northbridge Cos.; Kelly Andress, founder and president, SageLife; Richard Hutchinson, CEO, Discovery Senior Living; Lynne Katzmann, founder and CEO, Juniper Communities; and Scott Stewart, founder and managing partner, Capitol Seniors Housing.
Nowokunski said Northbridge’s occupancy fell from 93 percent to 75 percent during the pandemic, but has since recovered to 87 percent and she expects it to be above 90 percent by the end of the year.
“It was a very aggressive recovery year,” said Nowokunski. “We look at 2021 as our recovery year, and 2022 as our stabilizing year.”
Perhaps more concerning is that the pandemic has resulted in residents who are older and require more care. Katzmann said Juniper’s average age for assisted living has risen into the mid-90s. “Length of stay is likely shorter and we’re going to see more turnover. To maintain census is going to take more work.”
Although the oldest baby boomers are now 76, if the average age of move-in for assisted living is in the 90s, it will be a long time before that wave of seniors comes in.
“The story should be that baby boomers are turning 75,” said Andress. “But if our average age is 90, we’re not going to see those people before I retire. The Silver Tsunami is a long way off for assisted living.”
The middle-market communities were especially hard hit, as those of moderate incomes are waiting as long as they can before moving to seniors housing, added Andress.
Despite these challenges, Hutchinson reported that Discovery hit “an all-time, historical high in move-ins” this year, registering 450 in a single month.
“We’ve seen a surge in assisted living demand with an average age that was six to seven months older than before,” said Hutchinson. “The whole notion that COVID was the demise of seniors housing was dispelled pretty quickly. We have a demanding customer who wants our product. We’ll fight and we’ll find our way.”
Stewart noted that Capitol Seniors Housing’s financial partners kept a cool head through the worst of the crisis.
“Everybody should be very proud of how we pulled through this thing,” said Stewart. “The media had written us off. It’s really great that everybody kept their cool.”
Stewart also noted that newer communities recovered more quickly than older, legacy properties. Hutchinson said the three communities that Discovery opened during the pandemic are “doing gangbusters.”
“In 2020, the messaging of safety really was resonating,” said Hutchinson. “In 2021, we switched that messaging completely to experience and lifestyle. Sure, we’re going to keep you safe, but there are other things than COVID running around in your life.”
“People don’t want to be alone,” added Katzmann. “They want to be in a community.”
— Jeff Shaw