Resilient Living: Preparing for a Future of Disruption

The pandemic may have ushered in a new enlightenment about senior living.
Resilient Living: Preparing for a Future of Disruption

With a commitment to staying ahead of the curve, Royal Oaks in Sun City, AZ, addresses important aspects of the community’s future in its master plan, including creating a distinctive, cohesive campus; reinforcing the resident-centered culture; enhancing the employee experience; and improving flow between indoor and outdoor spaces.

Resilience and disruption:  Participants mentioned these two words most consistently in our 2021 survey, The State of Senior Living: An Opportunity for Change, where more than 200 senior living leaders commented about the market’s outlook and overall health. While there was consensus from respondents that the sector is healthy in the long term, it was clear there was disparity in how the pandemic affected individual communities. Some felt minimal impacts, while others suffered tremendously. Luck and geography likely played a part in some of this variance, but foresight and good planning also had significant impact. These findings got us thinking: Are we looking at a future of continual disruptions? What can senior living operators do to be more nimble and resilient, both from the perspective of building design and community structure?

Other disruptors and disasters are certain to follow on COVID-19’s coattails. These disruptions may come from many different sources – the natural world, such as weather events; market disruptions; or even changing consumer behaviors and preferences. Disruptions may be acute or chronic, and many of them could happen at the same time. Our 2019 Clean Slate Project research identified potential large-scale disruptions to the senior living industry in the next ten years; they include climate change, technological advancement, changes in reimbursements, and new entrants into the market, among others. Many of these disruptions are already occurring and, of course, there are many other unforeseen possibilities.

To be prepared for these possibilities, communities need to shift focus from past and present conditions to the future. We need to act like futurists who continuously think about readiness. Futurists consider all the implications and prepare for them. For senior living communities, this perspective requires a call to action for operators to embark on resilience planning that will provide safer and more marketable communities.

What is a Resilient Senior Living Community?

Resilience is defined as the “ability to anticipate, prepare for, and respond to hazardous events, trends, or disturbances.” It’s also about lessening risk by mitigating potential disruptors before they happen. Developing resilience is both complex and personal. It involves a combination of inner strengths and outer resources, and requires a concerted effort. It’s not something that just happens; it takes planning and developing coping skills and tools.

To prepare for the future challenges, a senior living community needs to be ready to pivot with changes in consumer preferences and expectations, financial conditions, and the physical environment. Communities that are adaptive in this regard come with many benefits: They’re inherently safer for both residents and staff; they’re less exposed to financial risk; and they may even see a decrease in operating costs. Flexibility is also a marketing opportunity for potential residents and their adult children. A resilient senior living community is one that can offer an infallible value proposition: We will keep you safe despite what changes may come.

Bolstering Senior Living’s Core Tenets and Responding to Changing Consumer Preferences

While occupancy rates during the height of the pandemic were somewhat volatile across all levels of care, they’ve bounced back significantly. Respondents to our survey overwhelmingly reported that the sector’s long-term outlook is positive as long as they stay true to their core tenets – safety and security and the opportunity to live a social and engaged life in a true community.

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The Summit at Rockwood in Spokane, WA, was integrated into the natural setting on the Rockwood campus with views to a preserved wetland area. Photograph, copyright Benjamin Benschneider/ courtesy Perkins Eastman

Communities are going to need to go beyond their core tenets, however, to truly shine in the face of future uncertainty. Operators can bolster safety and security, for example, with a holistic approach to wellness, both physically and programmatically. This new goal means shifting focus from managing the lifespan of a resident to managing their health-span.

The Center for Healthy Living (CHL) model illustrates this approach. A CHL may be a separate building, a portion of a building, or even a program, but its core purpose is to support the mind, body, and spirit by providing places for social interactions; preventative healthcare and medical treatments; wellness education; counseling; healthy dining; continuing-education lectures and discussion groups; arts programming; fitness and spa amenities; and many other activities and services. CHLs can be developed as part of a new life-plan community, integrated into existing ones, or a stand-alone development within the greater community.

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Center for Healthy Living at Moorings Park in Naples, FL.
Photograph, copyright Randall Perry/ Courtesy Perkins Eastman

Another key component of safety and security is being able to ensure that residents are protected from natural disasters.  Climate change is causing more frequent and severe extreme weather events and trends, often hitting older adults harder than younger ones. Resilient buildings can help protect the health and well-being of residents and staff, and ultimately lessen the financial risk to owners.

As consumer preferences change, flexibility and choice must be another core tenet. Flexibility in programs and the physical environment will help communities respond to future acute and chronic disruptions. Flexibility in layout and location of common spaces allows the community to adapt to changing programs and scales. An example may include decentralizing some common spaces so a large building can be broken down into smaller-scale pods. Offering choice in things like apartment layout and style puts the resident in control.

Moving Forward through Resilience Planning

Resilience will look different for each community depending on its market, geography, and resident demographics. Strategic planning can guide the way.

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Royal Oaks was designed with passive elements to make outdoor living comfortable in the Arizona heat.

A strategic or master plan can be applied to both new and existing communities. This process is collaborative and iterative, and typically includes the following:

  1. Engage partners and experts; typically, partners include an architect, market-research team, and engineers
  2. Identify potential threats and stressors such as economic, climate, or market-driven forces
  3. Develop goals such as maintaining optimal indoor air quality during a smoke event from wildfires or being able to break a 120-unit apartment building into ten pods of twelve residents in the event of another pandemic.
  4. Conduct a risk-assessment and strategies matrix to prioritize goals based on each threat’s potential risk
  5. Following the above steps will produce guiding principles for adaptable design; these guidelines might include such things as diversity and redundancy in building systems and services
  6. Identify concrete strategies and solutions
  7. Identify the associated costs and timeline for each solution

Resilience needs to be a capital-budget line item, part of a normal operating budget that repeats from year to year. Staying buoyant amidst continuous disruption requires each community to constantly re-evaluate as we learn more and gather new information.

Creating a New Normal

While the senior living sector is emerging from the pandemic on solid footing, now is the time for all communities to create readiness in the face of future events that might otherwise be destabilizing. This moment gives us the opportunity to address the next generation of consumer and staff expectations through resilient strategies and solutions. There’s a new normal developing, and we want it to include strategic planning and decision-making, greater flexibility, and enhanced health, wellness, and safety.