For effective strategies, take a page from the independent living playbook
Many assisted living facilities are experiencing higher vacancies since the economy and the housing market crashed in 2008. Long considered a need-driven choice, the assisted living model of care is now viewed as more of a discretionary purchase. Adult children—themselves financially distressed—are keeping their elderly parents at home longer in an effort to save money or because home sales are sluggish and prices devalued. Increased options in home care and a renewed emphasis on aging in place spurred by technology advances in home monitoring and long-distance caregiving have also impacted assisted living occupancy.
Today, increasing numbers of frail older adults are moving in with adult children to preserve assets and support children. As a result, there is rising use of emergency room services, physician offices, home- and community-based services and other venues as the frail elderly or their adult children seek needed services to keep the older adult at home longer.
Delayed entry into assisted living usually results in the elderly person’s diminished physical and mental health, often to the point where he or she is no longer a candidate for assisted living and may need skilled nursing or memory care services instead. Family caregivers need to understand the consequences of delaying entry into assisted living. They also need to recognize that assisted living is not simply a custodial level of care. Its activity programs, good nutrition, medication monitoring and the security of an age-friendly environment can go a long way toward helping a frail elderly person flourish and thrive in the assisted living setting.
Freddi Flax, principal with RickStephan & Associates, senior living specialists in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania, says marketers must be able to demonstrate the benefits of assisted living versus remaining at home or risk losing the admission. She has observed that the assisted living communities that are doing well despite the economy are the ones that have made adjustments to their marketing plans, including expanding their networking, using their websites as sales tools and just plain “working harder for the same customer.”
Marketing senior living communities of all types has become increasingly challenging in today’s economy. Where wait lists were once the norm, now continuing care retirement communities (CCRCs) and other independent living communities are working harder and digging deeper to find ready and willing candidates to fill cottages and apartments. Across the board, CCRCs are brushing up on their marketing and selling skills, paying close attention to critical success factors and measuring the effectiveness of various marketing strategies.
Many communities have resorted to reduced entrance or monthly fees, free or discounted upgrade packages, moving allowances, home staging assistance and other tactics to encourage sales. Some assisted living communities are offering other deals as well to make the sale: a month free, waived community fees, help with home sales and more.
Assisted living communities need to borrow a page from the independent living marketing playbook and implement strategies that track more along the lines of independent living marketing; that is, become more proactive and apply similar salesmanship tactics: discovery, education, relationship building, customer service and—most importantly—follow up. Moreover, assisted living marketing needs to shift from a social worker mentality to a sales mentality. That means employing more proactive tactics for tracking and managing leads; applying protocols for timely follow up; setting goals for callouts, appointments and tours; and using analytics to develop a marketing scorecard. How many callouts does it take to get an appointment? How many leads to a sale? It means having a staff position dedicated to marketing assisted living, meeting with families, working with outside referral sources, building relationships within the community and communicating your message consistently and effectively.
Of course, all this also means increased marketing budgets and marketing plans with strategies designed specifically to target the adult child caregiver—a market difficult to reach and hold the attention of. A direct mail postcard might not work, but a targeted email message may. Messages must be straightforward, educational and aimed at problem solving. Don’t waste their time. It isn’t enough simply to talk about your community—you must demonstrate that you know what their problems are and that you know how to reduce their challenges and stresses. Just as in independent living, consumers need good information to make a buying decision. They want someone that they can trust; they want help, not hype. They need to understand what the assisted living level of care can provide, why your community is different and, more importantly, what they can expect in terms of outcomes.
As one frustrated caregiver put it, “I get it. You have a lovely facility, a caring staff and it smells nice but what can you really do to help my mom?” They are searching the Internet for answers. Your website should be their textbook on assisted living with information and links to other resources and services. Chances are if you help them in other ways (e.g., finding adult day care programs or transportation, or providing links to Medicare or other helpful information), they will turn to you for their care needs as well.
Adult children also need assistance in recognizing the signs that their parent needs help. Do you have a checklist of warning signs to watch for on your website? They want tips on how to start the difficult conversation with the parent as well as dealing with siblings and other family members. Do you have a social network site where they can communicate with other families who have had similar experiences? Do you have resources, articles, publications or books to recommend? And just like in independent living, they will likely need assistance in downsizing, getting the home ready for sale, help with the moving process at both ends and easing the transition from home to your community.
The assisted living community that is prepared to offer these services and adapt a more proactive salesmanship approach will likely be more successful in assisted living marketing in today’s tough economic environment.