Exterior view of the independent living facility at Freedom Pointe, The Villages in Florida. The facility has been designed with a resort feel and is situated on a golf course.
Changing Economy, Changing Needs Shape Design Plans
As with other housing sectors, senior living communities have definitely felt the impact of the nation's sluggish economy. During this hiccup in development, designers have also begun to take note of emerging trends and new realities for those seeking senior housing in the coming years. Like most every segment of society, baby boomers are leaving their impact on the conversation about how retirement living should look and feel.
David Minnigan, AIA, IIDA, is a senior design architect and principal with Earl Swensson Associates (ESa), Inc. Since the mid-1970s, ESa has designed close to five million square feet of senior housing and more than 5,500 units or beds. Minnigan has been involved with several large projects created specifically for the senior population segment.
"Residents and patients are older and sicker generally these days so the market is shifting somewhat," Minnigan said. Although independent living facilities are still popular, there are many consumers who are waiting later to move out of their homes and therefore have greater needs by the time they search for alternate housing options. One solution is a continuing care retirement community (CCRC), which offers housing and care levels commensurate with a resident's acuity level. An added bonus is that couples with differing needs can often remain on the same campus even if they reside in separate sections of the complex.
"Assisted living has boomed for the last 10-15 years," Minnigan continued. "I think skilled nursing is catching up with that, but skilled nursing is more of a Certificate of Need process," he noted, adding the extra layer of regulatory approval can make it more difficult to launch such projects. As a result, Minnigan said, "It is putting pressure on assisted living (facilities) to provide for more and more needs."
According to Minnigan, another growing market sector is memory care facilities for Alzheimer's and other dementia patients. Minnigan said there are really two models for these facilities, which can either be freestanding or housed in a particular portion of an assisted living or skilled nursing facility. The design process is approached differently for facilities caring mainly for bed-bound patients as opposed to those who are physically still able to move around.
"There's a more residential model for folks who are younger and more ambulatory," he said, adding that elopement becomes a major design challenge. "Security and safety and dignity are all key design issues."
Up until now, baby boomers have generally been researching the senior living industry on behalf of their elderly parents. "Now what we're seeing is those baby boomers are beginning to look for themselves, and it's a more sophisticated market than what we've seen before," said Minnigan.
He likened it to the hybrid car market. For several years, the auto industry spent time educating the public about the attributes of hybrids. Now, consumers have moved past that basic understanding and want to compare features on various models.
Minnigan said providers should expect the same level of savvy consumerism when it comes to baby boomers seeking out their own senior housing. "It's going to be more consumer driven with a real focus on providing services and lifestyle kinds of issues. It will be more the resident demanding certain services rather than the provider giving a list of available options," he predicted, while readily admitting that no one is quite sure exactly what these new models will look like. However, Minnigan said he anticipated we would begin to see more communities built around targeted interests – such as golf or travel – rather than broad-based complexes that try to be all things to all people.
Another trend that is particularly beneficial to developers in states such as Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina and northern Georgia is the concept of "half backs." Minnigan explained it's a revision of the snowbird concept. "Some of the more resort-type areas of the country are becoming less appealing," he said. Instead, many retirees from the northeastern section of the country are moving halfway back home. "They miss the seasons. They miss the topography," he continued, adding that relocating to the mid-south also puts them in closer proximity to adult children who still live up north.
Although the senior population is our nation's most rapidly growing demographic sector, the recent economic slump has hurt building projects targeted to this group. "If you can't sell your house, you can't move to a retirement community," Minnigan pointed out. However, he continued, there is reason for optimism on the horizon.
While many are taking a conservative approach and halting or delaying projects, those with access to funds are finding several attractive reasons to begin work now … including the availability of skilled labor and lower construction costs.
Minnigan added, "This is a great time to build if you've got the capacity to get the planning and architecture work done." He noted a short-end project takes about 6 months-to-a-year to get off the ground. For more complex projects involving unit sales and entry fees, it can take two-three years to ramp up.
"When the housing market starts to show a significant turn, this will give senior housing developers and operators a big boost. We know the numbers are there. There is going to be pent up demand."