Written by Elizabeth Ecker for ALFA Update
Enter an assisted living community and you’re likely to see people with canes, walkers and wheelchairs, engaged in a program or simply enjoying some quiet time. Many reside there because they need assistance with personal care. New prospective residents see this and many don’t identify with it—whether or not that self-image is a reality.
Perception vs. Reality
One of the major questions communities must address is how to avoid pushing away potential residents who don’t identify with the level of care they see or perceive on site.
Especially upon a first impression, providers say, prospective residents can be turned off by current residents—whether their concerns are warranted or simply because of their own self image.
“Initial perceptions are often, ‘Wow that's not me and I don't belong here,’” says Faith Ott, president and senior consultant for Sage Age Strategies, specialists in senior living business growth. “There’s a struggle in coming to terms with their own limitations.”
The signs of mobility challenges, for example, are obvious in many assisted living communities with the instance of walkers and scooters to help people get around. For the able-bodied 70-something, it can be a turnoff.
“The challenge is when more healthy residents come in and see high acuity residents with walkers and wheelchairs. It freaks them out. We know this,” says Traci Bild, founder and CEO of Bild and Company, senior housing strategists.
Yet there are some tried-and-true sales practices to combat this problem, as well as some newer ideas about gaining the younger resident with fewer needs who doesn’t see himself or herself as someone who needs a lot of assistance.
Most approaches center around being mindful of the distinction between resident perception and reality. But some more tactical approaches include a look at the placement of furniture, for example, or the timing of visits around activities rather than meals when people are likely to be gathered near dining areas with walkers and wheelchairs.
“Look at entryways differently,” Bild says. “You often see a lot of furniture where people sleep in the lobby. Instead, make it a place where people can congregate to talk, rather than to sleep, by placing high top tables.”
Offer Equal Amenities for Each Level of Care
It also comes down to the community, providers say, and offering the same amenities across types of communities—in the case of assisted living versus independent living as steps in the continuum of care, for example.
Those amenities should be exactly the same in assisted living or independent living so a resident entering the independent living community doesn’t perceive that there will be a negative transition down the road. For someone who has few needs upfront but sees assisted living residents during a visit, there should be no noticeable difference in the options available and amenities those residents are accessing, says Adam Kaplan, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Senior Lifestyle Corp.
“We should be providing the same quality of experience whether in an independent living or assisted living setting,” he says. “That’s our job: to make sure somebody—whether considering making the move now or living in our community first independently that they don't feel like a second class citizen if they are going to need more services.”
That might mean offering the same number of options and type of service in dining rooms, Kaplan says, so someone looking at the independent living option sees a complete mirror of amenities if and when they move into assisted living. That also goes for activities, linens services, and any other services the community provides.
Build Relationships to Earn Trust
Regardless of the type of community and how much of a continuum of care it offers, however, providers and consultants say that identifying the perception of needs versus the reality of those needs is the most important thing to address in order to prevent a potential resident from being “scared off” by too many needs-based residents.
“Even in independent living, we find the person has needs, not just wants. But they’re not sharing it upfront, they’re playing their cards,” Ott says. “The only way we learn those needs is to build trust so they open up.”
In some cases, the potential client is dissuaded due to denial of his or her own needs, but in other cases, it might actually be for the best, says Ott.
“They may be driving the right people away; those that are not appropriate to live there,” she says.
Experts agree that marketing materials often serve the purpose of engaging the potential resident or his or her family members. However, following through on-site and ensuring that potential client sees an accurate picture of the community and identifies with that picture is the ongoing challenge communities are continuing to address.
“It’s not a popular topic,” Bild says. “But I try to think ahead of what are our great challenges of tomorrow—this is one of them.”
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