Study Shows Life is Better in Seniors Housing

Life plan residents report healthier, happier lives in almost every aspect.

By Mary Leary and Cate O’Brien

For most of us, a career in senior living provides a sense of purpose that’s bigger than oneself. It’s more than just a job. Through our efforts, we are driven to help people age in the best ways possible. 

For those of us working in life plan communities (LPCs, formerly known as continuing care retirement communities), we’ve long suspected that the social and wellness opportunities provided by these communities improve quality of life for residents. However, while we may have sensed those benefits through our own observations or interactions, there haven’t been longitudinal metrics upon which we could understand wellness among residents as a whole. Until now. 

Study reveals health benefits of LPCs

New research released in January by Mather LifeWays Institute on Aging shows residents living in LPCs report more healthy behaviors and greater emotional, social, physical, intellectual and vocational wellness than older adults living in the community at large. 

The five-year Age Well Study is the most extensive longitudinal research to date exploring health and wellness, and evaluating the impact that living in an LPC has on residents’ well-being. The first-year report includes findings based on responses from 5,148 residents from 80 LPCs in 28 states. These responses were compared to a demographically similar sample drawn from the Health and Retirement Study conducted by the University of Michigan. 

First-year results were so compelling that, when given the opportunity to participate, 47 additional communities joined the study for Year 2, with the potential for 38,000 total resident participants. 

Conducted in partnership with Northwestern University, ASHA, LeadingAge, Ziegler, Novare, Life Care Services and the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care (NIC), this comprehensive examination of health and wellness also celebrates the 20th anniversary of Mather LifeWays Institute on Aging, a resource for research and information about wellness, aging, trends in senior living and aging service innovations. 

The size and scope of the survey allows for in-depth analyses of organizational factors and resident characteristics. The research informs our industry and provides real evidence that living in an LPC has a positive impact on quality of life for these residents. 

The research also provides the data we need to design new programs to ensure that we’re not only meeting the needs of current residents, but evolving and improving to meet the needs of future residents. This applies to individual communities that participated as well as our industry as a whole. 

Key results

Creating opportunity makes a difference, mentally and socially. LPC residents scored higher in five of the six dimensions of wellness than their community-dwelling counterparts. The only aspect of the six dimensions of wellness in which residents had lower scores was “spiritual.”

Notably, but not surprisingly, more than half of LPC residents reported that their physical wellness and intellectual wellness had “somewhat or greatly improved” (54 percent and 57 percent of respondents, respectively). Residents reported more physical activity, increased personal connections, higher frequency of volunteering, more optimism, greater life purpose, less loneliness and more positive perceptions of aging. 

Perhaps most importantly for residents and their families, LPC residents self-reported more healthy behaviors, better health, fewer chronic conditions, better mood, better memory and greater satisfaction with life.

LPC residents reported that they engage in more intellectual pursuits — including reading, games, trainings or other educational activities — and use social media and meet up with friends more often than older adults in the community at large. 

LPC residents overwhelmingly report having more social contacts and being less lonely. In fact, nearly 70 percent of the residents surveyed reported that moving to a LPC has somewhat or greatly improved their social wellness.

Environmental factors

Regarding lower scores for the category of spirituality, most likely this is because fewer residents reported religious affiliations than did older adults in the community-at-large comparison group. Also, the questions were suggestive of a more traditional concept of religion rather than spirituality in a broader sense (for example, “I believe in a God who watches over me” and “The events in my life unfold according to a divine or greater plan”). 

It is possible that LPC residents have a less traditional sense of spirituality and so would not be as likely to endorse those items. To investigate this hypothesis, we have added several questions to the Year 2 survey, which ask about spirituality more broadly.

Interestingly, it seems that both geography and community setting play a significant role in the findings. Residents from larger communities (with 300 or more units) report more positive results relating to life satisfaction, mood, perceptions of aging, stress and perceived control. 

Residents in urban communities and those in the Northeast feel younger than residents in other regions. Residents in the South and West have more frequent contact with their social networks than residents in the Northeast and Midwest. 

Those in the South and West have greater life satisfaction, higher emotional wellness and are more optimistic than those in the Midwest and Northeast. They also have less stress than those in the Midwest, with no significant differences between the Northeast and other regions.

LPC residents in the West have lower depression than those in the Northeast and Midwest, with no significant differences between the South and other regions. 

Regionally, LPC participants in the Midwest and South are more spiritual than those in the West, with no significant differences between the Northeast and other regions. LPC residents in the West have a greater sense of purpose in life than those in the Midwest and Northeast, with no significant differences between residents in the South and other regions. 

In future years, the Age Well Study will assess different measures, such as potential personality differences between individuals who choose to move to a LPC compared to those who remain in the community at large. Collecting data over time will enable us to identify predictors of various wellness outcomes such as whether higher levels of optimism lead to greater resilience. 

The first-year report provides objective, quantifiable data that supports the benefits of LPCs. We hope that providers will quote it, share it and reference it to strengthen their communities and ultimately the category as a whole. 

These results help inform our industry in so many ways, and are available to download for free at TheAgeWellStudy.com. 

Mary Leary is CEO and president of Mather LifeWays a non-denominational nonprofit organization that enhances the lives of older adults. Cate O’Brien is assistant vice president and director of Mather LifeWays Institute on Aging.