• Nancy Griffin

Boston University School of Hospitality Administration Convenes Panel of Senior Living Experts


Boston University School of Hospitality Administration (BU SHA) hosted the webinar "Hospitality, Wellness & Community: The Future of Senior Living on June 15th. This panel discussion is part of their Summer Conversations Series, which covers a variety of topics impacting the global hospitality industry.


Organized by BU SHA’s Master of Management in Hospitality Program, the addition of this senior living topic supports the new one-year degree program with a senior living concentration launching this fall.


The panel was moderated by Makarand Mody, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Hospitality Marketing. Panelists included Jenna Anderson, Chief Marketing Officer for SALMON Health & Retirement, Mel Gamzon, Principal of Senior Housing Global Advisors, Cindy Hale, VP of Marketing, Brand, and Revenue Management for Five Star Senior Living, Beth Burnham Mace, Chief Economist and Director of Outreach for National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care (NIC), and Sanjeev Shetty, Chief Global Strategy and Innovation Officer at Connected Living.


Mody started out by sharing some compelling stats to set the stage:

  • By 2030, all baby boomers are expected to be at the retirement age of 65 years old or older. This will expand the size of the senior population so that one in every five residents will be at retirement age.

  • According to the US Census Bureau, by 2034, older people are projected to outnumber children for the first time in US history.

  • At this time, senior living penetration into households with members over 75 years old is only 11 percent, meaning that nearly 90% of households aren't currently choosing senior living.

  • National Health expenditures are projected to reach 6.2 trillion dollars annually by 2028, compared to 3.8 trillion in 2019.

The first question—Given these economic and demographic trends, what kind of opportunities do you see?—was directed to Beth Burnham Mace. “The opportunity is huge,” she said, especially for developers who create housing and care options for middle-income seniors.


The demographics for seniors housing really isn't the 65 and older,” Mace explained, “it's the 80 and older. In the US population, 80+ is projected to increase by 50% between 2020 and 2030, to about 20 million people—and that compares to an inventory base today of about 1.7 million.”


Her overall assessment was that demand should be cultivated by creating a compelling value proposition for senior housing—for investors, certainly, but most importantly for residents.


Later in the talk, Mace elaborated on the need for a focused paradigm shift: "Part of the challenge, really, will be to identify how to grow the business for this specific generation." The baby boomer generation, she points out, is not like the Lucky Few or the Greatest Generation, and will have different expectations as they age. Boomers influenced cultural norms and buying trends in entirely new directions, and as they enter retirement, they’ll be looking for a new kind of senior living experience.”


The second question, regarding positive opportunities brought about by COVID-19, was posed to Mel Gazmon. He asserted that 2020 was a “sea change” in the senior living industry. “There's no question about it,” he said: 2020 was “the beginning of a new reality” and a bearer of great opportunities.


“We are seeing a significant spike in innovations: the evolution of value and new technologies, refined operating systems. Wellness is now becoming an increasingly important part of the industry, [and] the financials are getting stronger.” Significantly for resident well-being, Gazmon pointed out that “the congregate setting—which is characteristic of this industry—was not a setting of isolation, which they would have in their home.”


In rebuttal of negative-spin media claims—namely, that COVID-19 disruption to the industry suggested that senior housing was not the best setting for elders—Gazmon went on to cite positive results from a recent technical report published by NIC, titled Mortality in Congregate Care.


The study, which was conducted through a grant from NIC to the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago (NORC), examines the impact of COVID-19 on senior living in 2020. The data pool spans five states, and examines outcomes in 3,817 senior housing properties across 113 counties, together serving approximately 503,000 residents during the study timeline.


Gazmon went on to review some of the study’s highlights, which include data showing that 51% of participating properties had zero COVID deaths in 2020. While the study results did show mortality rates increasing by complexity of care, in lower-acuity settings such as independent living communities, mortality rates were comparable to those in the surrounding county’s general population.


Cindy Hale was asked what she had seen as the impact of COVID-19—from a marketing lens, from a branding lens, and from a revenue lens. She responded, “With adversity comes resilience and opportunity,” and pointed out the ways that senior living organizations were able to “dig in” and demonstrate this. “That's really what we need to think about going forward,” Hale said, and gave examples of how her own organization quickly transitioned to virtual care and virtual experiences to keep residents engaged with each other and with learning. Their adaptations included virtual fitness classes, hallway ice cream socials, and “everything in between.”


Hale concluded by reiterating Gazmon’s sentiment on the importance of finding alternatives to isolation, even during a pandemic. “Maybe we took it for granted a little bit before COVID,” she said, but went on to express confidence that no one in the industry now—including residents—will ever again lose sight of the power of community spirit. That, she says, is what will propel this industry forward.


In response to the question of how wellness has been incorporated into senior living over the past few years—particularly from a marketing perspective—Jenna Anderson responded by describing SALMON’s focus on the mental health component of wellness.

She then posed the question: “And what does that really mean?


The lessons of elders’ COVID-related isolation loom large in her post-pandemic outlook. “For a lot of people—what we are finding for leads and families—it really was the lack of that family connection. Luckily, living in one of our communities, you still have that kind of communal feel that Cindy was referring to—but, really, it's thinking: How can we make sure that box is checked, as far as mental wellness and connection?”


In Anderson’s view, what that looks like post-pandemic is providing families with the opportunity to join in with residents through meaningful programming and routines that allow for flexibility, such as shared dinners that are not confined to a specific time of day.

"When we’re thinking about our spaces,” she said, “and the new spaces that we are building, and the experience, our focus has been, and continues to be, that family and intergenerational piece."


When asked about technology in senior living, Sanjeev Shetty echoed other speakers in emphasizing how 2020’s “silver linings” have prompted significantly accelerated innovation. He also gave a nod to the importance of building a solid foundation to add new technologies into the fold, and reported seeing a tremendous investment in infrastructure planning.


“If you think about technology as a pyramid,” Shetty explained, “and you have infrastructure at the very bottom of that pyramid—as you move up the pyramid, you've got applications and security systems, and at the very top you have robotics and telehealth.”

To illustrate the potential ways that robotics can support both efficiency and resident well-being, Shetty introduced special guest tēmi (pronounced: “TEE-me”). The robot proceeded to give an overview of its own abilities, along with the numerous ways they can be applied in senior living communities.


Given the amount of investment already aimed at the technology pyramid’s foundational layer of infrastructure, Shetty indicated that the industry will also see high levels of investment in robotics, virtual care, wellness technologies, and safety-related features like remote monitoring and sensor technology.


Shetty also pointed to a shift toward re-branding these kinds of supports, with the idea of purpose as a central focus. Using his own organization as an example, he pointed out that “Connected Living” uses words that carry no connotations of ageism, but rather the end goal of the brand’s work. “So,” Shetty explained, “a 13-year-old can use our technology, and an 80-year-old can use it.”


Over the course of the discussion, the panelists continued to touch on common themes, including affordability, diversity and inclusion, the need to build an authentic brand, intergenerational housing models, the paradigm shift from elder dependency to elder empowerment, and the importance of life purpose and lifelong learning.

Click here to view the video on demand.

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