Dave Tague is Vice President of Housing & Senior Living for Cadence McShane, a major national construction firm. What makes him “a person of interest” for my blog is that he brings 35 years of experience in this sector, with a full focus on senior housing since 1994. That’s when senior living icon John C. Erickson (founder of Erickson Retirement Communities) offered him a shot at learning senior living construction from the very ground up–and a chance to see it as a personal calling, not just a job. Dave was won over by the idea of building for seniors,what he calls “a passion transaction” and began building senior housing of all kinds-in addition to a career which spans the modern evolution of the senior sector. I was fortunate enough to interview him about a very fast-growing sector: active adult communities. His comments were very insightful. Enjoy.
By Bill Pemberton, Editor
AS PREDICTED BY SAGES 20 YEARS AGO, the Age Wave is building to a crest in terms of the number of seniors as a percentage of the population. We were warned about the wave, but the less evident phenomenon is the subtle undercurrent of generational change at work within the overall senior population. During my interview with senior living construction expert Dave Tague, he shared some fascinating insights that define boomers as truly a new breed of senior.
“The WWII generation saw retirement as a fixed point in life: age 65. They usually waited to move into a senior community until they were no longer able to be fully active and take care of their own home,” said Dave. “It was a need-based decision. They realized they were exiting the ‘mainstream’ population and moving into a care environment.”
He added that, for the boomers, retirement has no definite starting point–if it has a beginning at all. They see it as the beginning of the next phase of an active lifestyle, not a withdrawal from the mainstream. Boomers, by sheer numbers, have always defined the mainstream, and no one else will define it for them.
“As a result, many boomers are moving back into an environment they last knew 30-40 years prior: lively communities with an emphasis on active aging–or active adult communities. Ironically, this new lifestyle aligns closely with that of the millennials, who aren’t looking for the three-bedroom brick house and a backyard the first time around, as the boomers did,” he explained. “Like the boomers, they prioritize socialization and shared activities over large personal space.”
Adding to the serendipity, there is a clear and growing affinity between boomers and millennials, both of whom prize personal adventure and, frankly, “play together well.” But there’s a catch. One senior living architect put it this way: “When a boomer invites a millennial over for dinner, there should be no clue that it’s an environment designed with aging taken into consideration.” Dave agrees and pointed out that there are commonalities in habitat: you’ll find robust Wi-Fi and, increasingly, special cutouts for services like Uber pick-up points or concierge package delivery that are desired by both.
However, Dave emphasizes that to assume aging doesn’t factor into construction for “active agers” would be a mistake. Astute builders understand this very well. Dave describes building for active agers as almost an art form, one devoted to making the special building considerations for seniors virtually invisible.
“One might assume that if you can build multifamily complexes for millennials, you can build for seniors, which would be a big mistake,” said Dave. “Developers who rush into senior construction based on the boom in senior-related construction risk omitting the building aspects that are defined by age-related differences.” Again, these subtle but real differences might not be obvious to the casual observer.
Dave shared several examples. One is that an active adult community should never have three flights of stairs without also having an elevator, unlike complexes for springy-legged millennials. Also, the omnipresent breezeways around stairwells aren’t found in most active adult complexes to spare older adults the ravages of open exposure to immoderate hot, cold or wet weather. Hallways in active adult communities tend to be punctuated at short intervals with social areas to promote a sense of community and a shorter walk between destinations. These are just a few of the many differences between multifamily and senior living design.
This very adaptable approach by a major builder to meet the special needs of senior operators and residents represents the kind of marketing agility that a rapidly morphing senior housing industry requires. Being able to build for seniors is one level of specialization; being prepared to build specifically for active-agers who cringe at anything that reminds them of aging is a finer skill set still.
Everyone knows that boomers will be the real sweet spot in senior living growth for the next 25 years. But as we have shown, they will be a challenging group for senior lifestyle services to target in any uniform way. They will need special age-related considerations but will be turned off by anything that says “special needs.” Staying front and center in mainstream society, enjoying new relationships–including those across generations–will be their guiding star. Boomers will be forever young in their own imaginations, and that’s the perception that counts when connecting with them.
Once you build an active adult community, then you’ll have to market it. Just like construction, knowing the market and the audience is key to connecting with these active-agers. That will mandate messaging and graphics that offer lifestyle options which sound more like margaritas then Metamucil.
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