Maintaining Senior Residents’ Satisfaction When Expenses Increase

Brightwater Senior Living's Quintin King expands on how owners and operators are dealing with current economic conditions.

Backed by only-increasing demand and limited new supply, senior housing occupancy rates have been constantly improving in the past couple of years. However, high inflation resulted in increased expenses for owners and operators, who have also been dealing with a general shortage of specialized workers. And these challenges are not unique to the U.S. market.

Brightwater Senior Living is an owner-operator that is active in both Nevada and California, and a few Canadian markets. Across all its 13 locations, the company provides short-stay options, independent living alternatives, as well as various care levels, including for people with neurodegenerative diseases. President & CFO Quintin King admits that operating in the current economic landscape is no easy feat, but lowering the level of service is not an option.

Here’s what else King told Multi-Housing News about improving operations and the resident experience as headwinds brought on by changing economic conditions continue to weigh on the senior housing sector.

How has economic uncertainty impacted the U.S. senior living sector?

King: The past economic conditions and the upcoming economic uncertainty has definitely affected our industry. Basically, it felt like our industry got sucker punched one right after another. The health-care crisis has changed the feeling about health-care communities. This pandemic created a negative feel for safety in our communities and we saw a decline in occupancy whether organic or forced through shutdowns. Inflation had a big impact through increased expenses, as we continue to navigate the elevated expenses environment. These costs have tightened the margins, which provides challenges even as the census improves.

Our industry has also been facing a workforce crisis, which impacts both staffing and operational costs. Even though occupancy has increased, so did interest rates nearly double or more many mortgage payments. While margins are starting to increase slowly, the mortgage debt on many non-permanent loans or those maturing, are still too much for many communities to cover. Lastly, the uncertainty surrounding capital availability continues to cause many developments to be put on hold and senior living companies to pump the breaks on new projects. 

How has demand for each type of senior living options evolved over the past few years? Has occupancy at your U.S. properties increased to pre-pandemic levels?

King: While all the negative economic conditions have changed the current conditions of senior housing, the demand for senior living continues to grow. Independent living, assisted living and memory care have all seen an increase in occupancy and the search for senior living communities is on the rise. 

I would say that the average occupancy level for U.S. properties for us has increased and surpassed the pre-pandemic days. 

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Can you provide some details about the short-stay options you offer? How do they work?

King: Short-term options are a way for family members to trial for their aging parent or relative. This is our way to showcase our services and the benefits of being in one of our communities. Another option that is becoming popular is short-term stays for the day—adult day services. I see this as a growing trend as a partial stay for the day is a bit less expensive than 100 percent committed.

Studies show that the U.S. population is getting older and older. What does an aging population mean for the senior housing sector?

King: We hold to the belief that senior living is a strong market going into the next few years. With the number of people hitting the age of 80 approximately doubling by 2025, the shortage of new communities will push existing communities to higher levels. With the slowdown in development from COVID-19, and the recent interest rate increase and capital markets slowdown, the current supply of older suites won’t be enough to cover the population increase.

What do U.S. senior housing residents want today? What are the top trends in senior housing?

King: We see that our senior living residents want all of what they currently have, however, newer and higher quality of services. Residents are willing to pay for services more but want those to not just meet expectations but exceed expectations. The trends tend to be new product, larger suites, choices of services versus all-inclusive.

  • Brightwater Senior Living of Tuxedo is located in the Tuxedo area of Winnipeg, Manitoba. All images courtesy of Brightwater Senior Living.

In what ways do you incorporate technology to enhance the quality of life for your residents? Have AI solutions started to penetrate the sector?

King: Brightwater looks to utilize technology in every aspect of providing services where possible. The increase in the aging population of our residents collides with the decrease in the workforce—primarily in the health-care and services sector—accelerating the acceptance of technology from both our staff and our residents. We are and will continue to utilize technology to help fill in the gaps where a staff member was previously used. Brightwater has started to utilize cleaning systems in housekeeping and serving with the use of automated equipment. 

AI has started to enter the senior living industry. In the past, senior living was seen as a slow-moving industry but now we have seen significant advancement in technology companies entering the market to help support the growing need for automation. This has been prevalent in online marketing and health-care systems.

READ ALSO: What to Expect for Senior Housing in 2024

Can you share any recent initiatives or improvements made at your U.S. properties to enhance the overall experience for residents?

King: Over the last year and going into 2024, two key initiatives have been in place to help with increasing the resident and family experience. For our health-care communities, Brightwater implemented an Onsite Staff Educator. This added costs to the bottom line for sure, however, we felt that it was a major improvement for our staff, residents and families. With the shortage of available staff, we wanted to ensure that each member has the training available to them to be as effective and efficient as possible for our residents. We also felt that the residents and families would experience a more elevated level of service.

In addition, Brightwater has carved out time and focus on social media. Where Facebook has been used in senior living for a while, we are making a push more in Instagram and TikTok to help show the outside world of senior living that residents and employees that make up that community are exciting, dreaming and living a wonderful life inside the community.

How does Brightwater encourage and support communication and socialization among its residents?

King: Even through COVID-19, Brightwater continued to encourage and support social interaction—while being safe—for our residents and family members. During that time, you never knew when it might be the last birthday, Easter Sunday, Christmas or Anniversary, so we continued to encourage connections throughout those rough moments. 

Brightwater continued to grow its engagement program during this time by doubling each communities’ budget in this category. In addition, Brightwater is collaborating with new technology tools like ICON to help families see into the community events even when not right there to see in person.

What are your expectations for the year ahead? What will be most challenging as a senior housing owner-operator in the U.S.? 

King: We see 2024 as a leap forward in bringing our communities back to the higher level of expectations that everyone wants. Margins were rougher during the last few years, as we did not lower our staffing or make cuts to our programs. We felt that maintaining the level of service was critical to our expectations as well to provide that best level of service. Increases in our occupancy and rates have started to provide room for better margins and numbers. 

The largest challenge continues to be the high level of interest rates. Should those rates continue to remain high, we will see more owner-operators falter on their debt and more communities up for restructuring. Staffing will continue to be a challenge but not as bad. We have seen the demand in wage increases slow down and more workers coming back to the workforce.

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