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Tailwinds of Change: What Will the Senior Living Boom Bring?

Predictions abound in senior living industries around the aging of the Baby Boomer generation in America. Boomers are increasingly aware of how they want to age, and they have access to more tools than ever before. They also represent a population that promises to balloon demand for senior services in the next several decades.

Numbers alone are enough to prompt optimism in senior property investment sectors. National Real Estate Investor and National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care (NIC) point out the greatest number of senior housing units in six years came online in the 2nd quarter of this year. According to their recent research, 7 in 10 survey respondents do not think the new construction will result in oversupply. Current investors are increasing their holdings, and new buyers are looking to enter the market. Noah Levy, head of Senior Housing business for Prudential Real Estate Investors believes this “growing demographic tailwind” is only beginning and will culminate when the last Baby Boomers reach retirement age.

On the other hand, tech-assisted living is now helping more seniors to “age in place.”  A new Redfin study suggests that seniors may choose to stay in their homes and take advantage of tech-assisted services. Some may wonder if tech-assisted living will threaten occupancy levels of live-in facilities.

In senior living markets, it can feel like a bit of a race to anticipate how culture and technology will continue to change the ways we age. Given the billion-and-one unknowns, here are some observations to build awareness moving forward:

We’re increasingly able to choose how we age

Atul Gawande, MD and author of Being Mortal, claims the “overmedicalization” of our health care system may be a failed experiment. A 2014 Mother Jones interview with Gawande translates his claim that our elder facilities “infantilize people rather than bother to figure out what they actually need to maintain a modicum of meaning in what’s left of their lives.” Gawande says we have a mismatch of value in that “safety and survival are the assumed priorities, and we don’t know how to cope when they don’t actually add up to well-being for people.”

The Gawande interview also points out that “terminal patients in hospice programs often live longer and better than their counterparts in treatment. In fact, the mere act of talking with caregivers about what you value as you near the end of your life leads to a longer one.” In response to this and other studies regarding aging, many senior living facilities and home health programs are radically changing their approaches to care and the language they use to talk about it.

Technology offers us a wide array of options

In addition to speculation about the Redfin data, projects like Honor are seeking to reinvent how we take care of our parents. This project, as written up in Forbes, is backed by “a long, long, list of notable Silicon Vally brainiacs, entrepreneurs, and investors.” Seth Sternberg’s appeal to the White House Conference on Aging urges innovation in the realm of senior care that would enable America’s seniors to “comfortably stay in their homes as they age, with joy and grace.” Uber, Rover, Instacart, and CareLinx, to name a few, are on-demand mobile startups that cater to the needs of seniors. It’s clear that seniors and their adult children are eager for alternatives that don’t include a move to a senior living community.

Ambient technology is another development that allows for alternatives and extends independence. Sometimes called “welfare technology,” these assistive elements function on minimal user input and integrate into the environment  With everything from wearables to fully integrated “smart homes,” seniors can now manage chronic conditions and monitor daily activities while staying mobile and vital in their communities.

Skim the session offerings for the 2016 Environments for Aging Conference and Expo. Architects and design professionals are now gathering expressly to discuss “a new philosophy of design, lifestyle, and connection to community.” Their workshops and panels revolve around “design for a lifetime rather than an age stage,” and the “repositioning and reimagination of existing senior-focused living and health care.”

Alternatives are the new mainstream

There’s no doubt the Internet decentralizes as well as unifies us. It empowers us all to seek out communities, consider more options, and customize services to fit our unique sets of needs. Senior care in America wants to follow this shift. Both seniors and their adult children are discussing available alternatives and, increasingly, we are looking for answers online.

It’s too soon to tell how the bulk of America’s aging populations will choose to live out their final years or what the impact of their choices will be. It will be interesting to watch how demand keeps up with the abundant supply of housing in the pipeline. It will also be interesting to see how we use the technology available to us to continue to improve residential and in-home care.

The NIC research points out that 80% of senior housing growth is concentrated in 35% of metropolitan markets. Also, it’s the most tech-ready cities that seem friendliest to aging in place. These studies largely bypass seniors living in rural areas or in cities with fewer online services.

With an uncertain future before us, it seems best to keep eyes and ears wide open and to stay aware of how innovation can redefine the senior care status quo.