How retirement communities are adapting to life post-Covid 19


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At the private retirement community where 90-year-old Lee lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, the last scheduled social event was a Valentine’s Day dance in February. 

A few weeks later, as the coronavirus pandemic took hold in the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised anyone 60 or older to stay home. There have been no more potluck dinners, poker games, special outings or other social activities scheduled at Lee’s complex. And it’s unclear to her when that may change.

“We are more or less locked down and not allowed to mix with each other,” said Lee, who asked that her last name and residence not be used, for privacy reasons. “We’re not allowed to have any visitors except family, and we have to wear a mask.”

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Due to Covid-19 and the outsized risk it poses to older individuals, age-restricted — i.e., 55- or 60-plus — communities like Lee’s are facing a seismic shift in how they operate, experts say. Whether at a sprawling community or a small operation, amenities like fitness facilities, game rooms, libraries, dining rooms — and the social/active opportunities they provide — are often what draws residents there in the first place.

“This pandemic fundamentally changes the business model,” said Joseph Coughlin, founder and director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Age Lab.

“Amenities will remain at the top of list for consumers, but will now share that spot with ‘Is it safe?'” he said.

Including continuing-care retirement communities, assisted living facilities and other homes for the country’s older population, the $73 billion industry has already made major changes to address the latter.

For example, communities where residents previously ate meals in a shared dining room may be asked to eat in their rooms, said Amie Clark, co-founder and senior editor of TheSeniorList. Or, meal times are getting staggered and there’s more physical space between diners. Group functions have gone by the wayside and it’s uncertain when — and how or if — they’ll return.

“A lot of communities are grappling with: Is this what it’ll look like 12 months from now?” Clark said.

Researchers at IBISWorld expect 2020 occupancy rates to fall, as potential residents of these properties delay making a decision to move. There also is the issue of being unable to visit a particular community for an in-person tour, a practice being replaced by online tours and conversations.

At the same time, operators of these communities face higher expenses due to the pandemic, such as personal protective equipment to keep residents safe, cleaning materials and retraining staff, experts say. They may also need to create larger spaces to allow for social distancing to minimize spread of the virus, and figure out how other amenities can be safely offered.

I think people are going to be looking at other options to help them remain in their home as long as possible.

Amie Clark

co-founder and senior editor of TheSeniorList

“Like every single industry, retirement communities will have to spend more,” Coughlin said. “The question is will the consumer be willing to absorb the increase in cost or will it come out of [profit] margin.” (IBISWorld pegs that industry margin at 7.6%.)

Depending on the type of community or property, residents can pay monthly fees ranging from $1,000 or $2,000 to upward of $6,000. Some also require an upfront “buy-in” that may be anywhere from $100,000 to about $1 million, Coughlin said. That’s particularly common in continuing-care retirement communities, which offer a continuum of care from independent living through long-term care and nursing care as a resident’s needs change.

There also are age-restricted communities made up of individual residences — purchased outright or via a mortgage — that offer alluring amenities but no option for advanced types of care as residents age. In other words, they are more of a stopping place before a person heads to a community that accommodates those age-related needs.

One upshot of the pandemic’s impact may be an increased interest in aging in place. 

“I think people are going to be looking at other options to help them remain in their home as long as possible,” said Clark, of TheSeniorList.

That could include making changes to their home like installing a walk-in tub or shower, or a wheelchair ramp into the house.

“There’s already a gravitational pull of aging in place,” said Coughlin, of the MIT Age Lab. “Now more will say, ‘This is what I know, and this is what I know is safe.'” 

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