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 result in 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 and included workshops and speakers. 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. "If they want to move, they're going to come sooner."

Here's what seniors can expect in the movement to get their business:

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

Center data suggests nearly 600,000 people reside in assisted living units across the country. Such places offer long-term living arrangements and daily activities.

The average monthly cost of a one-bedroom apartment is $3,022, according to the Assisted Living Federation of America. That price doesn't include other care fees, such as help with medications or showers.

But shoppers do have an edge: Within assisted living communities, the pressure is on to keep occupancy rates high. That's why communities in recent years have offered price cuts, such as one-month free rent.

The industry is growing weary of price breaks as the economy recovers.

"One of the repercussions we're living with is the record rate of discounting during the Great Recession," Ms. Bild said.

• Boost to Internet profiles: As more consumers turn to online reviews, communities will have to step up their game by being more transparent.

"Consumers want to be able to compare communities across the board," said Blair Carey of RetirementHomes.com.

Steve Moran of SeniorHousingForum.net encouraged communities to help willing residents get online so they could contribute as well.

"People feel like they're a part of your community" through blogs and online exchanges, Mr. Moran said.

• Hearing the hard sell: Occupancy rates are approaching prerecession levels, industry leaders said. One possible reason: In the improving economy, more people may be willing to sell their homes to pay for care.

But speakers said people are reluctant to change their lifestyle, especially if they are not sick. Focus groups of prospective residents show that people do not want to live in senior housing, said Margaret Wylde of Oxford, Miss.-based ProMatura, a market analysis group specializing in 50-plus consumers and their housing.

Trends show people are holding out as long as they can before choosing assisted living, said Ms. Bild, the senior housing consultant.

"By the time they call you, it's already too late," Ms. Bild said, noting that residents are arriving older and frailer.

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

And places may do things differently to change visitors' first impressions. Walking in and seeing residents socializing, as opposed to being silent on couches, could make a difference.

"We should help them see themselves as being much more capable, much more confident and competent in their environment," Ms. Wylde said.

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