• Matt Thornhill

Who Defines Community in Senior Living Communities?

Updated: Aug 22

Pick up any senior-focused publication in your local grocery store entrance and you’ll see ad after ad for senior living communities. As you flip through the pages you’ll soon realize that every ad and every community is essentially the same:

  • Beautiful front entrance and lush landscaping.

  • Well-appointed entryway with upholstered chairs and traditional furniture.

  • Dining room that has a country club feel.

  • Special features like a swimming pool and exercise facility.

  • And maybe, but not usually, happy older adults enjoying themselves (most don’t show people because someone once told them the reader can better picture themselves in the setting if you don’t populate it with models in poses).

The ad copy describes the same lists of features and benefits: three chef-prepared meals a day, on-site beauty salon, yoga classes, and so on and so on. And of course, every advertiser got the message years ago not to refer to their senior living offering as a “facility.” It’s a “community.”


But what defines community? Is it the stuff in the ads? The entryway, the dining room, the pool, the services?


Isn’t community defined by who lives there?


Looking at senior living through the lens of long career in advertising and marketing, I’m baffled by the blather put forth by so many operators. Do they not ever leaf through the publications where their ads run and see nothing but identical offerings? Do they not visit the websites of their competitors?


What the consumer sees is a sea of sameness.


It’s no wonder they have a difficult time recruiting and winning over new residents – even before the pandemic. They have failed to capitalize on the one thing that makes each one of them distinct, and interesting, communities: the people who live there.


Think about it. Every senior living community has a unique set of residents with unique backgrounds, experiences, interests, and dreams. Those considering moving to a community are interested to know if they’ll fit in with the current residents. That they’ll bring something new and different to the community.


The truth is that human nature kicks in when considering where to live. People want to live where they’ll feel they belong. They’ll feel they belong if they have something in common with the people already there.


Most senior living communities already have residents who have moved in and then convinced friends or neighbors to join them and move to the community. Rather than have that happen organically, senior living community operators ought to be intentional in creating community around those connections.


I know of senior living communities that are located in college towns and have retired professors and administrators from the school. Others are near military bases and have retired military as a key affinity group. Faith-based operators started years ago with residents who share beliefs. But in almost every instance, those birds flocked together without encouragement by the operator. There was no intentionality.


It’s a mistake to promote a senior living community as a place for anyone. Think about it from the viewpoint of the prospect. When they see the promotional materials and when they come to visit, they’ll want to know it’s a special place for particular people. Prospects all think they are interesting people, but does anyone ever ask them about their interests and talk to them about how they’ll fit in and contribute to the fabric of a community?


Tomorrow’s winners will focus on what makes community in senior living. It isn’t the place. It’s the people.


And if you’re an operator and don’t know what makes your community different, ask your residents. They know.



Matt Thornhill is the nation’s authority on marketing to boomers, and recently retired from a career in marketing and advertising to start Cozy Home Community, a new type of senior living for middle-income boomers.


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