Convincing consumers to choose age-qualified buildings rather than remain in their own homes is a huge challenge for the seniors housing industry. But developers and operators had reason to mostly cheer with the October release of the National Housing Survey of Adults Age 55+.

Sponsored by the National Investment Center for the Seniors Housing & Care Industry (NIC), the survey compared changes in consumer attitudes over the last decade. About 1,600 households were surveyed by phone.
Some highlights include:

  • Consumer awareness of seniors housing has increased dramatically. For example, 70% of seniors now know about independent living buildings, compared with 56% in 1998.
  • The number of seniors who would prefer age-qualified housing more than doubled to 37% from 18%.
  • The number of seniors who live in age-qualified housing has increased over the last decade to 12% from 7%.

Other findings weren't so rosy for the industry. The overall desirability of age-qualified housing has remained unchanged over the last decade. And assisted and independent living buildings have actually declined slightly in desirability.

Why? Survey author Edie Smith thinks consumers have become familiar with seniors housing products, but the decision to move is generally needs driven. Consumers still consider age-qualified buildings as places they might need to live, rather than places they'd like to live.

Among persons age 75 and above, the appeal of age-qualified housing increased as they grew older -- probably because their needs increased. Also, seniors who've made the decision to move to age-qualified housing are almost twice as likely to have health limitations, the survey says.

The desirability of the product hasn't changed despite the flood of new projects built in the last decade, notes Smith, vice president at the ProMatura Group, the Oxford, Miss.-based firm that conducted the research. "We have a lot of work to do to educate the consumer and build products that appeal to them."

Another troubling finding for the industry is the relationship between education and desirability. College-educated consumers were much less likely to view assisted living as desirable, than those with less education.

NIC President Robert G. Kramer thinks educated consumers are influenced by negative press accounts of incidents at buildings. "It has an impact," he says.

The survey held some surprises. It's widely known that adult children are usually the decision-makers in a crisis situation when a senior is moved to assisted living or a nursing home. But the survey found that in about half the cases, the adult children were also involved in the decision to move a parent to an independent living building.

That means developers and operators better pay closer attention to what the younger generation wants, Kramer says. "We have to provide a quality product. It has to be a place where I would want to live myself, or where I would want my parents to live."

Also, the industry must emphasize the link between socialization and continued health, Kramer believes. Though socialization wasn't covered in the survey, it could be a huge untapped selling point, Kramer contends.

After all, a seniors housing community that promotes wellness and offers a wide range of activities can help prevent the kind of decline often seen among seniors who live alone in their own homes. "We're not just providing maintenance-free living," says Kramer. "The industry needs to do a better job of documenting and marketing the socialization of seniors housing."

For now, developers and operators should focus on increasing product penetration among those age 75 and older, the survey suggests. Results show that the proportion of renters more than doubles after age 75. Also, 5% of those age 75 and over live in seniors housing, but 13% find it very desirable. "That's the real opportunity," Kramer says.