For two years, Karen Neetz knew it was time for her mother, who is now 90, to move to a senior living community, but she struggled to find one that was a good fit. She started with a list of 22, then narrowed it down to 10. She toured communities, tracked them on a large spreadsheet, and fought a sense of disappointment that she couldn’t seem to find a new home for her mother that satisfied them both. The already difficult process of helping her mother, who has battled cancer, move onto the next chapter of her life grew agonizing.
Then Neetz visited the Grandbrier of Prospect Heights, a Greenbrier Senior Living community, managed and operated by Pathway to Living, in Prospect Heights, Ill., and she loved it from the start. The atmosphere of the community, the residents’ rooms, the staffing, and the amenities all struck her as just what they were looking for.
“I wanted a place that would allow her independence and her own life,” Neetz said. “I didn’t want her to lose that.”
Adult children often play a central role in helping their parents navigate the process of choosing a senior living community that will be their new home. The decision can be an emotional one and a wide array of factors play into the final choice, frequently depending on the preferences of the prospective residents and their family members. For communities, that means it is not enough to just appeal to potential residents. Their families, particularly their adult children, are also integral.
Michele Gittings, community relations director for Arbour Square at West Chester, a Blue Harbor Senior Living community in West Chester, Penn., said sons and daughters want to know that their parents will be safe and happy.
“I think it’s important to provide things that the adult children feel that their parents should have at their fingertips,” Gittings said. “Whether it’s entertainment, whether it’s professional services, whether it’s quality dining, they want a great experience for them. They want to feel like they themselves could move in here, as though they could picture themselves here. When they get that feeling, they feel like it’s a good place for their parents.”
Amenities can capture the attention of family members and potential residents during the decision-making process, helping to build an overall impression of a community. Margaret Wylde, CEO of ProMatura Group, a global market research and advisory firm specializing in consumers 50 and older, said adult children gravitate toward communities that feel like places where they can see themselves visiting frequently to see their parents. Amenities can play a role in creating that environment, though Wylde said her research doesn’t show adult children or their parents citing the amenities themselves as key factors in their selection of a community.
“Very close to the top of the most important things for family members is that a community is welcoming to them and gives them the opportunity to be together with their parent and visit with them,” Wylde said.
Wylde worries that communities can fall into a game of one-upmanship with competitors and offer amenities that provide more style than substance. Amenities, she said, should be included because they have a clear purpose and because a community is prepared to plan and program in a way that truly makes them impactful. A swimming pool, for instance, may capture attention but sit relatively unused—unless, Wylde said, there is a concerted effort to make it something residents want to use. Even better, she said, is if the effort can include adult children and other family members.
“If they had a great water aerobics program, for instance, and they invited family members to come and do water aerobics with the residents, then that would be a good use of that pool,” Wylde said.
Here are 10 types of amenities that appeal to adult children—while offering a clear purpose beyond mere appearances.
Olivia Korpi, assistant vice president of marketing and admissions at Wentworth Senior Living in Portsmouth, N.H., said the children of prospective residents increasingly seek flexibility in dining options in communities. In particular, they prefer dining with a restaurant-style atmosphere and menu options. Korpi said today’s adult children of residents don’t want to see their parents in a residence that feels too institutionalized and a dining experience that makes them feel as though they are in a restaurant helps to avoid that trap.
Korpi said something as simple as offering choices on a menu can make a large impact.
“Even if you’re only giving them two choices on a menu, that is the sensation of options, of independence, of making your own decisions, and that’s very important,” Korpi said. “That definitely is something that is top of mind for [family members].”
Children sometimes differ from their parents when it comes to the ideal mix of food options, Korpi said. In particular, sons and daughters sometimes want to see more gourmet food than their parents actually want. Other times, they are attracted to elaborate diets designed to aid their parents’ health, but that do not necessarily seem appetizing to their parents. For the most part, Korpi said, Wentworth’s residents, who have access to a formal dining room and a bistro café and kitchenette, prefer more home-style food—and they don’t want to be told to eat their vegetables.
Arbour Square at West Chester has five different dining venues of varying styles, ranging from an upscale grill with a fixed-price menu that is currently open once or twice a month to a 1950s-style diner with all-day breakfast, burgers and fries, and other diner favorites. The diversity of styles gives residents a mix of options to consider every day, depending on their preferences—and their family members’ preferences.
“It appeals to adult kids for a lot of reasons,” Gittings said. “Primarily, if you want to take mom and dad out for dinner, guess what? You don’t really have to go out. You can eat right here.”
Gittings said Arbour Square’s fee system allows for family members to pay for themselves rather than be grouped on their parents’ bill, enabling them to eat guilt-free and even to treat their parents to a meal if they like. Sometimes, children of residents will reserve rooms for special events for their parents.
Wylde said the most important dining venues for adult children in senior living communities may be those that are simple and laid-back, such as a coffee shop, because they provide quiet places to visit with their parent or parents without distractions or interruption. Many dining options in senior communities lack the intimacy necessary for meaningful conversations, she said.
“It’s nice to have the kind of space where [adult children] are welcomed into the community and they have an opportunity to be together with their family member,” Wylde said. “It’s cozy, but it also has a sense of being out in the world.”
Family members frequently find the presence of a bar appealing because it suggests socializing opportunities for parents, but Wylde said bars also are attractive to many residents because the vibe is informal and social interaction is not required.
“Nothing is required of them except to sit and sip their drink and maybe carry on a conversation if they want to,” Wylde said.
One of Wentworth’s major selling points to both prospective residents and their families is a vibrant garden area that overlooks the Piscataqua River. The garden can be a particularly comforting sight for adult children whose parents have been avid gardeners.
Wylde said one of the most coveted opportunities for senior living residents is the chance to spend time outside. Attractive outdoor sitting areas where residents can sit on pleasant days and visit with each other and visiting family members and friends can be powerful, she said.
Korpi said Wentworth uses the garden in informal and formal ways. Regular activities and events are scheduled in the garden, including a weekly lunch from spring to fall, and Wentworth’s memory care specialists hold sensory therapy sessions there, so that residents can feel the sun and breeze and smell the lavender and roses, among other sensations.
“And then from an informal perspective, a lot of people who come to visit will take their loved one out to visit with them in the garden, because it is pretty spectacular, especially in a place like downtown Plymouth,” Korpi said. “I don’t think people expect to have that as an amenity in an urban area like ours—they don’t expect to see this big green space with trees and peonies and everything. We have a bunch of special bushes that attract butterflies. It’s beautiful.”
Sons and daughters want to see their parents stay fit and active and a fitness center provides an encouraging sign that will happen. In its community gym, Wentworth offers exercise classes seven days a week in such disciplines as yoga, Zumba, and weightlifting. Each class is done in chairs to ensure it is accessible to all residents. Residents also can get one-on-one guidance from Wentworth personnel.
Korpi said an elaborate gym can be the kind of amenity that impresses children for the wrong reasons. A gym with extensive equipment does not necessarily draw residents to it. Instead, she said, classes and instruction—ways of encouraging residents to come into the gym—are paramount. Offering an impressive gym with no structure will not be effective, she said.
“I’ve been to three communities lately that built gyms and now they’re the most underutilized spaces in their buildings,” Korpi said. “They’re just not getting used. It’s great to have these spaces but they have to be appropriate for your residents. It’s again not about what we expect would be great for them but what they actually want.”
Gittings said Arbour Square residents often use the community’s gym for physical therapy, but residents can prove hesitant to simply go work out there because of uncertainty about how to use the various pieces of equipment. In response, Arbour Square has held demonstrations in the gym and contracted with a personal trainer to work with residents individually. For Arbour Square residents who want to use a pool, the community partners with a nearby YMCA to offer access.
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