Early planning is the key to keeping senior living communities current

Originally published in the St. Louis Business Journal

With the needs and expectations of a senior living community constantly evolving, owners face the choice of tearing down and building new or modifying existing facilities for new purposes. To make the decision to rebuild or to remodel requires gathering data by analyzing the financial capacity of the owner, the competition in the market, long-term maintenance, and operating costs.

A common mistake can be building “one-off” projects on a campus without having conducted a master plan, creating the risk of bottlenecks, misuse of property, and ultimately limiting the ability to successfully expand in the future. To avoid these issues, you need a firm that is entrenched in the continuing care industry, with experience and a proven track record.

Contractors less experienced in senior living construction struggle during the master plan phase to understand the impact of decisions affecting licensing and meeting regulations for senior living facilities.

“Construction is a one-time cost that can affect operations for the life of the community. You need to make sure when you do an analysis of the existing campus you focus on how you are utilizing it for the long term,” said Todd Goodrich, vice president of senior living for PARIC, who has over fifteen years of industry experience.

That’s why master planning with an experienced partner, who understands the challenges of an active community, is vital to successfully reposition a senior living facility.

Trends dictate change

Many senior living communities grew organically as needs and wants of clients and senior care trends changed. For example, the growth in memory care, the rapid growth of technology in health care, and the daily lives of residents has resulted in facilities that often are serving purposes beyond their original intended use. This can result in less efficient staffing, increased operating costs, and inefficiency of building systems.

Many facilities built decades ago were intended to serve one or two disciplines but have added, or need to add, facilities serving skilled nursing, independent living, assisted living, or memory care. Trends have changed from semi-private to full private rooms with in-room bathrooms and showers to provide a more dignified living experience.

Independent living apartments coming on the market today have more premium features such as higher ceilings, granite countertops, and infrastructures to serve modern technology needs of the residents.

Demands for a modern community include new fitness areas; new swimming pools; media centers, which are replacing libraries; and multiple dining choices ranging from casual bistros to fine dining and bar-and-grill areas.

The need to plan early

While many communities with a good resident census do not see a need to change, the time to plan is well ahead of declining census numbers.

It takes a long time to do the master planning process, to have the financial feasibility issues resolved, to have the design finished, and then complete construction.

“Too many owners wait until the census suffers, but the earlier the better (for planning an upgrade). It can take a client two years to perform a master plan and design for one year of construction. Construction typically isn’t what we need to focus on to shorten disruption the most. Really, the issues revolve around the community and the decisions about what residents want and how to do that,” Goodrich noted.

It is important to start that far in advance and not get caught being reactive. In the end, communities need to develop a 20- to 30-year vision of what their campus needs to become to survive or thrive during the arrival of the baby boomers in the coming years, and beyond.

Minimizing the Disruption

Expanding or modifying a senior living community often involves construction activity intruding on people’s homes, when they’re paying for an environment that is focused on caring for them and providing an atmosphere that is peaceful and relaxing.

“Master planning with an experienced partner is important to minimize disruption. When you’re in the middle of a community with the diverse needs that a senior living community has, anything that changes their surroundings introduces a new hazard. It is very important for your construction partner to involve the residents in the process, to let them know what is happening and when, to remove the angst and fear of the unknown before getting into the project,” said Goodrich.

Experienced contractors understand how to minimize disruption when relocating utilities, planning for utility turnovers, establishing changes in resident traffic patterns, and being able to communicate while working with staff.

“It’s important to have someone who understands that you are working in people’s homes, who actively deals with licensing and regulation issues for a living,” Goodrich noted. “A big piece of it is updating the community to meet the changing expectations in senior care, while adding additional amenities to help market the community, not only for the people currently living there, but future residence as well.”