Assisted living industry rolls out welcome mat as boomers age

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The economy is slowly recovering, home values are rising again, and baby boomers are turning 65 at a rate of nearly 10,000 a day.

Leaders in the senior living industry hope these factors add up to more older Americans selling their homes and moving into assisted living communities over the next decade.

How to capture that business was the focus of Assisted Living Federation of America’s recent conference here, which drew nearly 2,300 participants.Workshop discussions offered insight into what consumers should know when choosing a community — from the prevalence of online reviews, to sales teams offering breaks on rent to drive occupancy.

To draw more business, industry leaders are working hard to change the image of assisted living. Instead of thinking of them as care facilities, leaders want prospects to view communities as vibrant, active places.

For the industry to thrive, “we have got to get them to want to move,” said Traci Bild, a national senior housing consultant, during a session on strategies to draw younger residents.

The sector known as senior housing and care has a market value of $300 billion and growing, according to National Investment Center for Seniors Housing and Care Industry, a Maryland-based group that compiles data for investors.

Assisted living is one of the fastest-growing long-term-care options for seniors. Center data suggest nearly 600,000 people reside in assisted living units across the country. Such places offer long-term living arrangements that combine housing, support services and health care. They also feature daily activities, from Bible study to trivia games, and regular outings for local shopping and dining.

Average monthly cost of a one-bedroom apartment is $3,022, according to the Assisted Living Federation of America. It’s a cost that gives many people pause before signing contracts.

That’s why communities in recent years have offered price cuts, such as one-month free rent — to help seal the deal and keep apartments full.

The industry is growing weary of price breaks as the economy recovers. But savvy consumers are still asking for deals, and sales counselors are unprepared with how to deal otherwise, said Bild. “One of the repercussions we’re living with … is the record rate of discounting during the Great Recession.”

As more consumers turn to Google, Yelp and Yahoo to read online reviews, communities will have to step up their game by being more transparent.

Steve Moran of seniorhousingforum.net encouraged communities to help willing residents get online so they, too, could contribute to the impressions people form.

Occupancy rates are slowly inching back toward prerecession levels, industry leaders said.

But people are still reluctant to change their lifestyle, especially if they are not sick, speakers said.

Wylde said other options pose strong competition, including “granny flats” on adult children’s property, home health care and multigenerational housing.

Trends show people are holding out as long as they can before choosing assisted living, said Bild.

To persuade hesitant prospects, salespeople should be encouraged to spend more time talking to prospective residents and families, Bild said. People who know and live within assisted living communities should be encouraged to give referrals.

Most younger Americans aren’t clear on how to pay for that option in their retirement, said Andrew Carle, with the senior housing administration program at George Mason University, during a workshop on long-term care financing. Citing a 2006 AARP survey on financing perceptions, Carle said more than half of 1,800 polled mistakenly believed Medicare would cover that cost. But the federal health insurance program doesn’t pay for assisted living.

That leaves it up to the senior housing industry to promote long-term care insurance, which would help cover assisted living costs, workshop speakers said.

But efforts to launch a national long-term care insurance program proved tough, said national health and disability policy expert Connie Garner with the law firm Foley Hoag.

And several private insurers no longer offer long-term care insurance, scared off by the high cost of claims. “The market has collapsed,” said Howard Gleckman, author of “Caring for our Parents.” “Nobody’s going to pay for something (if) you can’t quantify and show what our industry has contributed to this country.”

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