Author: Derek Dunham

Derek Dunham

Now that he’s three-quarters of the way through the LeadingAge PA Fellows in Leadership Program, CFO Brian Mailliard shared insights into his leadership journey.

Thank you for spending some time with us at the conclusion of your third session of Fellows in Leadership.
“The third session!” It’s kind of strange to even say that out loud, because the time is just flying by. This month, we visited Cumberland Woods Village. The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center owns and operates this independent living community. One standout feature is the 250-seat theater. The community puts on shows, plays and other events in this beautiful venue.

What was the theme of Session 3?
Session 3 focused on two topics that just about all of us deal with on a daily basis. The first topic was Cultural Competency. Marsha Wesley Coleman, Director of Learning and Development at Friends Services Alliance, led that seminar. The second was Team Member Engagement, led by Gary Johnson, a consultant at Monarch Risk Management.

What insights did you take away from Session 3?
Well, the session featured many great takeaways. Here are a few that stood out:

1. Be aware of biases. The Cultural Competency workshop really got me thinking about biases and assumptions. Because these biases are engrained in all of us from a young age, we need to be cognizant of them when we are back in our organizations. Marsha Wesley Coleman showed us an eye-opening TED Talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, entitled  “The Dangers of a Single Story.” This inspiring talk highlights the hazards of looking at a people or culture from a limited pointed of view. Anyone who hasn’t seen it should watch it.

2. Create an environment that engages team members. Studies show that 70% of  team members feel disengaged at work. That’s why Gary’s session focused on three things we can do to create more engaging workplace environments. First of all, take a collaborative approach to problem solving. Secondly, create equality between managers and employees. Lastly, personalize the work experience through individual recognition.

3. Don’t try to change employees. Something that really stuck with me? The principle Gary taught of not trying to change peoples’ behavior. Rather, he encouraged us to change their situation instead. That change will then influence their behavior.

4. Notice your own actions. The program is teaching me to always be aware of how my actions, assumptions and attitudes influence those around me.

5. Always keep working on engagement. You can never stop working on team member engagement. If you’re not working on it all the time, you’re falling behind.

Anything else you’d like to share about your leadership journey?
One last thing I’d like to add: the class has really come together as a group. Because people feel close, they do not hesitate to share even on tough subjects. And the coaches and trainers really foster that closeness. I’m feeling very inspired by the other fellows.  In fact, McKnights’ Senior Living recognized one of my fellow participants, Jennifer Cisneros, as a Woman of Distinction for 2019. Read an interview with Jennifer here.


Derek Dunham

Today I’m talking with Maura Z. Richards, Vice President of Business Development at Wohlsen Construction, a top-ranked construction company specializing in senior living. Prior to her current position, Maura spent more than 15 years working in senior living as a provider and consultant, giving her unique insights into finding solutions that are economically and operationally viable to increase occupancy.

Hello, Maura! Thank you for talking to me today! What do you view as the biggest challenge facing older adults in the middle market?

The affordability of senior living communities. We have not completely solved the middle market product challenges to serve the number of seniors that will need to move to — specifically  — an assisted living or memory care community. Seniors will stay home as long as possible — which more times than not means too late — due to the fact that they do not have enough money to afford a senior living community.

What are some common misconceptions about the middle market?

People get confused when you talk about the middle market. They think middle market housing is affordable, but it’s really not. It’s essentially less costly than a traditional senior community, but it’s still expensive. The middle market community is much smaller in size and has more of a model of two bedrooms sharing a kitchen and bath. This type of living arrangement is not one that a prospect seeks until there is a need.  Having been in senior living for many years, I can share that this is not what you want to hear when a prospect comes through the door. You want prospects to move to a community when they are independent  and not making a need-based decision so that they are content with the move and will take full advantage of the lifestyle a senior living community offers.

What are the biggest barriers to building for the middle market?

Building costs and land cost — with both being high, the financial model is hard to pencil out to be affordable for the middle market. Developers look for sites that are outside urban areas to keep land costs down. However, to make the community pencil out, there typically is less amenity space and an apartment layout in which two individual prospects share a kitchen and bathroom.

What is the biggest competition for middle market housing?

People’s own homes and technology. If people can stay in their home and install smart home technology for less than it costs to move to a senior living community, then they will always choose their own home. They will then wait until there is a need to move to a community. The struggle from a proforma perspective is that the higher the acuity level of the residents, the more staffing the community needs.  With that comes higher entrance fees and monthly fees.

Since studies have found that, by 2029, 54 percent of older adults will not be able to afford private pay senior living, how will the industry as a whole need to change? 

The industry will need to look to partner with other organizations to create a mixed-use development that taps several housing options to share in the cost of the amenity space to bring down the cost of senior living.

What types of organizations would be good partners for senior living?

Maybe there is an option for senior living to partner with intergenerational housing options to form a mixed-use development. For example, many universities need additional student housing yet are faced with high construction costs just like senior living. There could be an opportunity for developers to look at student housing and senior housing to share in amenity and community space to lower the costs for both. This would also allow both populations to take advantage of the educational opportunities.

Do you have any other creative ideas that could benefit the middle market?

Another idea I have thought about from a socialization standpoint is to build senior centers on or next to local public schools to leverage intergenerational opportunities and programs. High schools are being renovated all over the country and facing issues of getting funding passed. Why not look at combining the two? The more our younger population interacts with and understands senior needs, the more we will see solutions to take care of older adults in the future. To get youths to understand seniors, you have to put them together.



Derek Dunham

At the 2019 LeadingAge Tennessee Conference and EXPO, an entire audience of people sat together quietly, eyes closed, remembering how they felt on the first day of school.

After several minutes, the presenter had them open their eyes and share their feelings. Emotions ranged from fear and excitement to nervousness and anxiety.

Why did presenter Melissa Ward, PT, MS, RAC-CT, Vice President of Clinical and Regulatory Affairs at Functional Pathways, have the audience do this exercise? She wanted to evoke the emotions students and parents feel on the first day of school, which is very similar to the way residents and their loved ones may feel on their first day in a retirement community.

Trying to find your way around an unfamiliar place can be a tremendous adjustment, and the move can be just as stressful for families leaving their loved ones. But there are ways to help the transition go more smoothly, like the techniques described in this recent article in McKnight’s Senior Living. And now, new residents and their families have another powerful resource to draw on: a unique program developed by the Functional Pathways team.

According to Ward, the Transition Concierge Program began as a “what-if” idea about two years ago. “A client community was  struggling with having residents successfully age in place,” Ward said. “New residents came in and weren’t engaged in community life. They weren’t taking advantage of everything available on the campus. This issue was leading to increased risk for falls and residents requiring higher levels of care.”

That’s when the Functional Pathways Team, led by Beth Reigart, Clinical Outcomes Specialist, decided to create the new Transition Concierge Program. This collaborative approach brings together a powerful arsenal of tools, including social services, nursing, therapy, activities, wellness, resident programming, resident support groups, resources for the family, on-campus physician services and more. By making the transition smoother, the program helps residents successfully age in place.

How the Transition Concierge Program Works

When the resident moves in, a Navigation Team conducts in-depth standardized assessments. Then, an Interdisciplinary Team creates a plan of individualized support. Every element is geared toward giving the individual input into his or her own life.

Here are a couple of examples: If a resident has breathing problems, he or she may need a plan that addresses limitations in endurance to make it possible to get to the bistro. If a resident has low vision, apartment modifications or a plan to get and read mail may be needed. Every resident adjusts to resident living at a different rate, according to Ward. The program was designed to provide services and support that fit each individual’s unique needs.

More Than Just a Real Estate Transaction

The Functional Pathways team believes that moving into an independent living community should be “more than just a real estate transaction.” It’s fostering a true continuum of care through this innovative service.

New residents may still face those first-day-of-school jitters. Fortunately, this innovative collaboration helps ease the transition so they can find passion and purpose in their new environment.

How is your community helping resident transitions go more smoothly? Let me know at I’d love to feature your strategies in an upcoming blog post.


Derek Dunham

A solution to occupancy challenges can come from someplace you never expected, like foster care.

When you think about it, it’s a natural combination: Youth aging out of foster care need a job and a place to stay. Senior communities have empty housing, job vacancies and caring mentors. But no one has thought to bring the two together — until now.

Rosemary Ramsey, the director of The Victory Lap, got this unique idea while she was employed at Brookdale Senior Living and volunteering with Monroe Harding, a nonprofit that helps foster kids that are aging out of the system.

How The Victory Lap Began 

“I was sitting at my desk at Brookdale, thinking about occupancy challenges. At the same time, I was volunteering with kids aging out of foster care. I saw their issues of finding employment, housing and connection to caring adults,” Ramsey said. “It kind of hit me that my worlds could collide in a productive way.”

“The truth of the matter is, a lot of these kids never get adopted,” she went on. “Twenty-two thousand kids age out every year in America. At least 30 percent of them will experience homelessness — and every one that bottoms out costs tax payers over a million dollars.”

In addition to occupancy challenges at communities, there’s also a nationwide labor shortage. “There are tons of entry-level opportunities in senior housing,” said Ramsey.

She also feels that great relationships can develop between residents and youths aging out of foster care. “There are three things older people universally love,” she said. “Mail, ice cream and young people.”

Cannonballing Into Community Life

John, the first participant, age 18, liked the idea right away. “It was an opportunity for him to have his own space. In the group home, you have to share a kitchen and a bathroom,” Ramsey said. “He also liked the idea of being around seniors because he was close with his grandparents. And he loved the pool.” That’s why, to celebrate John’s move-in, the local TV station shot a video of him cannonballing into the community’s pool. Watch it here.

John will attend college this fall while working part time and living at East Ridge Residence, an independent living community. He’ll receive oversight and counseling from a local nonprofit: Partnership for Families, Children and Adults.

Now that her program is up and running, Ramsey is looking forward to future placements. “This is not just a touchy, feel-good opportunity. It has real, practical economic benefits,” she stressed. “Retirement communities can not only fulfill their need for employees, and contribute with some living spaces not in use, but they can actually receive a stipend from the state for helping provide housing.”

In senior living, she said, “intergenerational” is a popular buzzword, referring to initiatives like Girl Scouts coming in to read stories, but Ramsey thinks that it can be taken a lot further. “I think it’s a marketing advantage — a place where older people and younger people live together,” she said.

Expanding the Program

Eventually, Ramsey would like to expand the program to populations beyond the foster demographic, such as veterans and people who are developmentally disabled. “Our industry is sitting on 100,000 vacancies. Let’s try to make a dent in our occupancy challenges and think outside the box,” she said. “These people can add life to the community, and residents have life experience and wisdom to impart.”

Right now, Ramsey is excited that the first participant has moved in. “John is doing great! He describes life in the retirement community as ‘way better’ than the group home,” she said. “He  has more freedom to come and go as he chooses. His job in the dining room is going well, and he has his own section now, so he is proud of that! He’s enjoying playing Bingo and cards, and the residents are teaching him new games.”

Has your community found unique solutions to occupancy challenges? Let me know at


Derek Dunham

Even after three days in the steamy summer heat, my excitement about everything I learned at the LeadingAge Tennessee 2019 Annual Meeting & EXPO is just beginning to heat up. The theme was: “What if we helped people find passion and purpose?” The individuals I connected with at the show are doing that in amazing ways. They’re bringing generations together, leveraging strategies from other industries and approaching their challenges with a fresh perspective.

Without further ado, I’m excited to report back to you my top five “what-ifs” at the show:

1. What if we could integrate former foster youth into senior living communities?

While I was walking the floor, I spoke with Rosemary Ramsey, founder of The Victory Lap, an organization committed to matching youth, 18 to 21, who have aged out of the foster program, with open apartments at senior living communities. The community would be paid $900 per month (funded by the foster program in Tennessee) and would be asked to provide a job for the individual (at least 10 hours per week). The program is intended to give former foster kids a boost — with stable housing, employment opportunities and support from caring older adults — while meeting workforce challenges, filling otherwise vacant units and fostering intergenerational friendships. Look for an interview with Rosemary in a future blog post!

2. What if we could bring the principles of doula care to hospice?

A session on creating a doula program for hospice created some serious conference buzz. The program follows the principles of birthing doulas to help guide the individual and family/loved ones through the dying process.

3. What if we could find and retain top talent?

One of my favorite sessions, led by Matt Thornhill, stressed the need for transparency and inclusion when hiring. It was all about finding and retaining top talent. One example Matt referenced was the innovative 30/40 program by LifeSpire of Virginia in which certified nursing assistants are paid for 40 hours but are only required to work 30.

4. What if new residents could feel at home more easily?

I heard several people talking about a unique continuum concierge program discussed by Melissa Ward, vice president of clinical & regulatory affairs at Functional Pathways. The program promotes successful transitions and helps people stay in their current levels of care. Its tools include new resident orientations, resident-driven support groups, physician services, collaboration across the care continuum and more. Stay tuned for a future blog post about this innovative program.

5. What if we looked beyond a prospect’s age and income?

Last but not least, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention our session with co-presenter Robbie Voloshin of United Methodist Communities (UMC). Robbie celebrated her birthday that day! The talk covered an in-depth research study on which we had partnered with UMC. In short, the study shows how going beyond superficial demographics to interests and values can help organizations connect more deeply with the right prospects. Discussion centered around the core aspects of the study — the values statements and how they were ranked.

Have you had any what-if moments of your own? If so, drop me an email at I’d love to hear about them.

Derek Dunham

I’ve traveled all over the country to attend senior living conferences. Last week, I had one of my  favorite event experiences. It was just three minutes from my home in Hershey, Pennsylvania.

At most conferences, the locations change, but the same pain points keep coming up. Issues include staffing headaches, leadership transitions and ever-changing regulations. However, at the recent 2019 LeadingAge PA Annual Conference & EXPO, themed “Own Your Future,” speakers raised some new and different questions. These questions could dramatically impact the future of aging services. In case you weren’t able to attend, I wanted to share them with you.

  1. Are smart speakers in communities breaking the law?

That’s one question you may not be able to ask Siri or Alexa. Even so, every community should be seriously considering it. As more and more providers (and more and more residents) plug in to voice assistant technology, the more potential legal and regulatory conflicts they face. For instance, allowing a resident to be audio-recorded without consent (which smart speakers do) violates both HIPAA and state wiretapping acts. Is smart technology always such a smart idea? In this fascinating presentation, Larry Zook and Cynthia Haines made the case for putting strong policies in place to deal with this new technology. 

  1. Why do for-profit developments move so much faster than nonprofits?

For-profit senior communities can be built in 12–18 months, while nonprofits often take 3–5 years. What accounts for the faster speed to market? In a peek inside the for-profit world, Maura Richards of Wohlsen Construction and Jamie Spencer of SilverBloom Consulting broke down the reasons.  They included vetting based on market feasibility, no need for pre-sales, a focus on rentals and availability of equity. Can nonprofits find ways to speed up their own development process?

  1. How can we extend housing solutions to the middle market?

As a field, we have options for people with significant resources. We also have housing  for people with extremely limited resources. But those in the middle? They’re often left without good choices. Research specialist Sara Marcq, banking professional Lynn Daly and architect Craig Kimmel discussed new models coming to market — including some for-profit rentals — to fill these unmet needs.

No, I didn’t take three flights to attend LeadingAge PA or visit an exotic locale. After the show, I got in my car, made two lefts and a right and arrived in my own driveway. This shows that a conference really isn’t about a place but about people. It’s people coming together to share their knowledge, in the hopes of improving life for older adults.




Derek Dunham

Two very different leaders have just reached the halfway point of their journey in the LeadingAge PA Fellows in Leadership program. For all those who aren’t able to attend, we wanted to share ten unexpected things they’ve learned about leadership along the way.

Brian Mailliard is the CFO at St. Paul’s. Sakkara El is the Director of Personal Care at Masonic Villages. As they hit the halfway mark of their journey, here are 10 invaluable insights Sakkara and Brian have gained about leadership so far:

  1. Shake up your thinking. “I came into the program with my own ideas on leadership, much of which was inculcated during my youth,” said Sakkara. “Now I realize that there’s so much more to it. My overall thinking has expanded.”
  2. Be aware of your impact on others. “The program is teaching me to be more aware of myself, and how my actions and reactions can have an impact on those I’m tasked with leading,” Brian said.
  3. You don’t have to have all the answers. Brian has been amazed by the sheer volume of leadership information that is out there. “It’s not always about knowing all the answers,” he said, “but having resources to reach out to and learn from other individuals that are experiencing similar situations.”
  4. Praise your team. All of the Fellows underwent a DISC profile, a test that assesses personality styles. “It was eye opening reading page after page about my leadership style,”  Sakkara said. She has made a conscious effort to implement some of the leadership suggestions that came from the profiles, such as praising the team she directly manages more often.
  5. Be an advocate. The Fellows visited the Capitol Building in Harrisburg to gain a deeper understanding of the importance of advocacy, including interacting with government officials and their office staff.
  6. Execution is key. Sakkara found one presentation on the work of leaders enlightening. “The lecturer explained the importance of crafting a vision, building alignment and championing execution,” she said.
  7. Look outside yourself. Both Sakkara and Brian were inspired by a visit to  Messiah Lifeways in Mechanicsburg. The community is very innovative and 100% resident focused,” Sakkara said.
  8. Look inside yourself. “”It has been an introspective journey in terms of continuing to learn, grow and evolve in my leadership style,” Brian said.
  9. Build relationships. Current fellows, past fellows and LeadingAge PA staff attended a mixer at the LeadingAge PA offices. “Meeting new people you can learn something from is always a plus,” Brian said.
  10. Don’t wait to be a better leader. What would Brian tell people who are thinking about participating in Fellows in Leadership? “The sooner you can do it, the better.”



Derek Dunham

Earlier this week, my entire world was disrupted. I flew to Pittsburgh for the Facing Disruption, Forging Direction conference, hosted by the Presbyterian Association of Homes and Services for the Aging (PAHSA). I participated in discussions about the major disruptors facing our field and came away viewing disruption as a positive force to be embraced. As I look back on the event, I can identify five major disruptions — and new directions that can transform them into opportunities. I wanted to share them with all of you who may not have been able to attend the conference. 

1. Disruption: tighter margins, leaner budgets
Many communities and systems are considering strategies to combat the changing needs of the mature market and increasing competition. This is evident in how communities are repositioning, contract types are changing and affiliations are continuing to develop.

Direction: Collaboration can boost financial strength. At the conference, Presbyterian Senior Living and Westminster Communities of Florida announced their intention to affiliate. Together, they will be the fifth-largest senior living organization in the country.

2. Disruption: a rapidly growing middle market
Forty-five percent of Boomers have no savings toward retirement, which means that most will not be able to afford the typical senior living community.*

 Direction: HumanGood is taking what it’s learned through its affordable housing communities to provide an innovative service to the middle market. We learned about how the brand developed Plaza Roberto Maestas in Seattle, incorporating street art that reflects the local neighborhood; a day care center for neighborhood children; local retail on the first level; and a plaza in the center of the complex that draws a variety of food trucks each day, attracting visitors from the greater community.

3. Disruption: a skyrocketing incidence of dementia
Caregivers already provide 18.5 billion hours of care per year at a cost of $234 billion, and the number of people with Alzheimer’s will more than double by 2050.**

Direction: Presbyterian SeniorCare in the Pittsburgh market has launched its Dementia360 program, which in the words of the organization “pioneers partnerships and collaborations.” The organization has developed a Dementia Care Center of Excellence, with educational programs, residential services, research and population health initiatives. This, along with its comprehensive care management expertise, provided the resources necessary to launch Dementia360, which is a series of tools to support both the caregiver and the person living with dementia.

4. Disruption: a dearth of qualified staff in senior living
The number of 16–24-year-olds in the workforce is expected to decline by 2.8 million between 2014 and 2024, which means that senior living communities could face major labor shortages.***

Direction: Presbyterian SeniorCare and Redstone, both of Pittsburgh,  shared two different models to bring youth in through education, volunteerism and internships. These types of programs introduce high school students to the benefits of a career in senior living, expanding the potential workforce at a grassroots level.

5. Disruption: unique partnerships providing exponential value

Direction: Twin Cities-based Presbyterian Homes & Services is pioneering relationships with payers and primary care/navigation to create a unique model to contain costs and — more importantly — provide the best-quality care to its residents.

I genuinely enjoyed my time at the conference and salute the leaders who came together to openly share their solutions for a common cause. And every day, every session was guided by this passage from Scripture:

“For surely I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord, “plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” – Jeremiah 29:11

I encourage everyone to address disruption head on by taking new directions that will move our field forward.


*Insured Retirement Institute
**Alzheimer’s Foundation
***Argentum Senior Living Workforce Trends 2018

Derek Dunham

The first session of LeadingAge PA’s 2019 Fellows in Leadership program was a huge success. I caught up with coach Diane Burfeindt, vice president of population health and housing at Presbyterian Senior Living, and participant Brian Mailliard, chief financial officer of St. Paul’s, to talk about the kickoff of the year-long program, hosted at SpiriTrust Lutheran’s The Village at Sprenkle Drive in York, Pennsylvania. “The other coaches and I were just amazed at how quickly the group came together — there was a really good energy,” said Diane. Brian agreed. The program was “even better than I anticipated it would be,” he said. Diane and Brian provided some top-level takeaways about what they’ve learned so far:

1. Leaders aren’t born; they’re taught. One surprising course insight debunked the myth of a natural leader. “We learned that anyone has the ability to be a leader, but not everybody is taught to be a leader,” Brian said.

2. The right decision may not always be the popular one. One of the challenges Brian has shared with the group is the realization that making necessary decisions for the health of the organization, may not be viewed as positive by everyone. “I want to be the likable person, and sometimes decisions need to be made that aren’t popular,” he said. Advice from the group: It’s okay if people disagree with you. And you’re not alone — most leaders deal with this issue.

3. It’s essential to see trends in action. The group toured the new assisted living neighborhood at The Village at Sprenkle Drive and heard about trends from Steven Jeffrey, chief strategy and innovation officer at Garden Spot Village, home of a five-apartment co-housing residence, just one of their innovations in senior living.

4. Titles don’t matter. The people in Diane’s small learning group work in a variety of areas, from finance to personal care to operations and strategic initiatives. “I think you can tell we didn’t talk about titles,” Diane said. “Regardless of experience or level or age, we learned a lot from each individual. It’s the diversity of thought and perspective in the learning circle that makes it so valuable.”

5. Other leaders face the same challenges you do. “It was reassuring to learn that the issues I’m dealing with on a daily basis aren’t limited to myself or my community,” said Brian. “Other people are going through the same things I am.”

6. Leading takes even more work than you’d imagine. Of course, leaders put a lot of effort into their jobs, but it’s essential to carve out time to focus on leadership development. “When I left the first session, what I was thinking to myself is how much study, time and thought people put into being a leader,” Brian said. “It’s something that you work at.”

Both Diane and Brian are looking forward to reuniting with their small group. “I’ve always found Fellows in Leadership to be a very personal journey,” said Diane. Brian seconded this sentiment. “I never slowed down before to think this way or contemplate leading in this way,” he said, “but I’m very glad to get the opportunity.”

Between sessions, the participants will be meeting virtually, getting advice on issues that arise at their communities and working on individual learning projects. “It’s always interesting to see how the group evolves through the year,” said Diane. Stay tuned for the highlights of the next session of 2019 Fellows in Leadership, taking place in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, May 15–18.

Derek Dunham


LeadingAge PA’s Fellows in Leadership program is a one-year, four-session program that focuses on effective leadership practices. Participants will gain the skills and confidence to enact true change to impact their real-life challenges.

At Varsity, we’ll be following coaches and participants as they make their way through the program. I kicked things off by talking to Diane Burfeindt, Vice President of Population Health and Housing at Presbyterian Senior Living, who is starting her third year as a Fellows in Leadership coach.

Derek: Thank you for talking to us. What motivated you to become a coach?
Diane: I was a 2012 graduate of the Larry Minnix Leadership Academy at LeadingAge and that was a life-changing experience — both personally and professionally. As LeadingAge PA started to evolve its program, I wanted to bring that experience to more people.

Derek: What kinds of experiences will the group share?
Diane: Sessions are each two or three days in different parts of the state. The participants will interact with experienced leaders from the aging services community and develop a network of colleagues. During each session, we tour a host community that’s part of LeadingAge PA. It’s really nice to get out and do that because a lot of people have not seen communities other than their own.

Derek: How is this program different from traditional leadership training?
Diane: It makes the experience personal to you. You’re not just sitting in a classroom and learning; you’re talking with others. A lot of us don’t get a chance to sit back and reflect on our challenges, to talk with people about how we might apply lessons to leadership issues we’re experiencing. It’s an incredibly valuable experience.

Derek: Who will facilitate the program:
Diane: MHS Consulting in conjunction with LeadingAge PA staff, are facilitating the program, and have included learning from leaders within our field that can offer very hands-on, personal insights.

Derek: What role do coaches like yourself play?
Diane: We will each have a small team of five or six, and we will stay with that team the whole year — helping connect what the Fellows are learning in the program with their actual work and leadership

Derek: Are participants from all areas and levels of leadership?
Diane: Absolutely: new leaders, seasoned leaders, middle-level leaders. Just in our last class, there were people from accounting, dietary, administration, activities, housing, nursing, home care — you name it.

Derek: How has the program strengthened your own leadership skills?
Diane: There’s so much I learned during the program and afterwards. I turned the corner on my leadership skills. Utilizing the alumni network since I graduated has been a total game-changer. The position I’m in now is a direct result of going through the program.

Derek: Why did it make such a difference?
Diane: Before the program, I thought that I needed to have everything figured out, that my job was to have a plan and implement it through leadership. I have since learned how many opportunities come my way when I know what I want to accomplish but leave the path open as to how I accomplish it. I allow more people in and follow up on opportunities that come to me. That is exponentially better than having it all figured out beforehand.

Derek: Does this program actually teach people to lead?
Diane: It doesn’t teach you how to lead step by step; it is more about learning what it means to be a leader. You might have had blinders on in the past as to what you thought was leadership and how you were leading. You realize that everyone is going through the struggle of finding the best way to lead — it’s a very personal time.

Derek: Does Fellows in Leadership confirm peoples’ desire to work in the senior living field?
Diane: Without a doubt! I’ve had so many people say that this program really reaffirmed their commitment to senior living — a lot of that is because they got the opportunity to meet with other people in the field and feel connected to them.

The first session of Fellows in Leadership will kick off on March 26. We’ll be following the program’s progress on the Varsity blog.





Derek Dunham

As the number of people living with dementia continues to rise, a wave of memory care construction is sweeping the country, and new bells and whistles are being introduced all the time — yet, what’s really most important in memory care design?

Recently, I asked a volunteer for her point of view. She has led resident activities in a community’s outdated memory care wing for years and is making the transition to running programming out of the community’s brand-new, $18.5 million stand-alone memory care building.

After the volunteer’s first day of leading a resident program in the new memory care center, I asked her how it compared to the former space. Here are her thoughts on what she would keep in the new design — and what she would change:

• Privacy: Residents in the new center have their own spacious rooms and baths, with airy picture windows.
• Mood-enhancing lighting: State-of-the-art circadian lighting changes on a 24-hour-cycle to promote better sleep.
• Access to nature: Secure, outdoor courtyards have walking paths.
• Sensory stimulation: A relaxation room offers soft, comfortable seating and aroma therapy.
• Pet friendliness: Residents can have their own cats!

• Poorly designed programming spaces: To attend a program in the main multi-purpose room, residents have to be escorted
a long way, down hallways and through two secure doors. There’s no storage for craft supplies near where activities
take place.
• Style before safety: The beautiful marble reception counter has a sharp edge, and one of the volunteers promptly
banged her hip on it.
• Impersonal decor: Hall walls are adorned with art chosen by a decorator, but this volunteer would prefer a changing
showcase of artistic creations by residents.
• Unbranded exterior: Outside, the main sign simply reads: “Memory Care Center.” The generic name feels cold, impersonal
and uninviting.

To sum it up, this volunteer appreciated many of the center’s state-of-the-art features, but there were gaps in function that made it harder for people to connect. The overall lesson here? When designing a new service or building, it’s valuable to elicit feedback from volunteers, along with other stakeholders. They often have years of experience and may think of ideas that others haven’t considered. The bottom line is this: From this volunteer’s point of view, high-end decor and state-of-the-art innovations are important, but the most important element in memory care design is the human element.

Derek Dunham

Today, nearly six million Americans have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. By the year 2050, that number is expected to double. Beyond that statistic are several million more people who have been assigned another kind of dementia diagnosis. The reality is that nearly every American, at some point in his or her life, is going to have a friend or family member afflicted by a chronic neurodegenerative disease. As a society, we have struggled to understand and cope with these diagnoses. Symptoms often start small, building to a critical level that alienates people from their loved ones through a mental fugue from which they cannot escape.

Most Americans gain their initial understanding of these illnesses through popular culture. As early as 1949, the character Willy Loman displays signs of dementia in the play “Death of a Salesman.” By the 1980s, several films used dementia symptoms as key plot points, as writers and directors explored the family dynamics and challenges that occur as dementia progresses. Since the year 2000, we’ve seen an explosion of documentaries, movies, books and other works that have chronicled the onset of dementia symptoms — both from a first-person account and through the eyes of loved ones. Today, one of Broadway’s most popular shows is “The Waverly Gallery,” a wrenching production that follows Gladys Green as her mind slowly fades while her body continues to struggle on.

In that trying moment, when a family is first faced with a dementia diagnosis, these portrayals are often the first thing that comes to mind. Loved ones conjure up the worst moments of the illness as portrayed in the cultural zeitgeist, leading them to believe that only desperation and sadness lie on the path ahead — except, that’s not really the case.

Generally, Alzheimer’s is first recognized because an individual is experiencing some kind of cognitive impairment that impacts his or her daily life. This means that the disease has already been present for a period of time before being discovered by medical professionals. Following a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, the average person can expect to live an additional three to 10 years. Herein lies the disconnect between popular culture and reality.

Families and friends often have a hard time understanding a diagnosis of dementia because the person may just seem forgetful as he or she ages. The portrayals of the disease in media usually play up the most uncomfortable and sad moments that come with the end of the disease, but a person might be able to live a relatively normal and happy life for several years before true debilitation occurs. This is why it’s so important that dementia be realistically portrayed to audiences.

At Varsity, we often don’t interact directly with individuals who have a dementia diagnosis, but the majority of the team has spent time in communities and with family members who have dementia. As an organization, we recognize the important of portraying the life cycle of a dementia diagnosis in a realistic and relatable way, especially through the marketing and advertising work that we do.

Sometimes, the “fresh perspective” isn’t the one that causes the greatest stir. From our experience, today’s freshest perspective about memory support and dementia is a realistic one that focuses on the life yet to be lived, not the eventual challenges down the road.



Derek Dunham

One question that we continue to get here at Varsity surrounds the naming, values and visuals of not-for-profit aging services providers. For the last several decades, the gold standard in this space was created by faith-based senior living organizations that had strong ties to churches and other religiously affiliated groups. Over the last few years, we’ve seen the identify of faith-based communities come into question.

Some providers have doubled down on their faith connections, embracing their history and including specific language in their mission, vision and values to communicate their dedication to faith-based principles. On the other hand, other providers have been slowly stripping away the overt references to faith, concerned that they might drive away residents that don’t share those same values (even if they aren’t required to subscribe to said faith in order to reside at the community). The fear that faith-based language and iconography could be costing communities residents is very real. While, on the other side of the coin, the fear of losing donor dollars from strong, faith-based donors ensures that others stay the course and lean firmly on their core values.

This led us to wonder — What effect is faith having on provider perception, and where might this trend be going in the future?

It’s no secret that religious affiliation has been on the decline in the United States. In Pew’s religious landscape study, which surveyed more than 35,000 Americans of all demographics, found that 22.8 percent of respondents identified as unaffiliated with any religious tradition at all. If we were to view that number in light of demographics, we can learn even more. Seventeen Baby Boomers (aged 50 to 64) report that religion isn’t important in their lives, with 34 percent saying they attend religious services only sporadically, and 28 percent reporting they “seldom” attend services at all. If one were to compare the Baby Boomers to Generation X or Millennials, Boomers and seniors would appear positively pious, as religious participation takes a nosedive within these demographics. Based on Pew’s findings, it would seem that being faith-based might not carry the weight it once did when someone shopped for a community.

Yet many entrance-fee, faith-based senior living organizations provide one critical service that very few others do: security. Namely, these organizations usually have a safety net in place so that, if a resident suddenly runs out of funds, he or she won’t be forced to leave the community. This kind of support is usually funded through giving programs that utilize the faith-based network that a community is tied to as a major source of giving. According to The Chronicle of Philanthropy, 65 percent of Americans who claim a religious affiliation give to charity, compared to just 56 percent of those who don’t identify with a faith tradition. Interestingly, the same study found that 73 percent of all charitable giving went to either congregations or religiously affiliated charities. Secular charities only accounted for 27 percent of giving.

It’s clear that, when it comes to philanthropy, being affiliated with a religious organization is likely to significantly increase the dollars that are coming through the door; however, with the upcoming generational shifts in belief and religious affiliation, we are forced to wonder if this tradition of giving will continue. Will Baby Boomers, Gen Xers and Millennials be just as inclined to give to faith-based charities, or will they rebel against them (and the bad press they have been recently receiving) and give to more secular causes? Only time will tell.

As we speak to aging services providers who are struggling with this problem, we find that there are no clear answers. What is right for a community in the upper Midwest may not be good for a community in southern California or on the Florida coast. Understanding local demography and perceptions around faith tends to provide the best insight into the direction an organization should face.

Regardless of which way providers choose to go today, there’s sure to be continued debate about whether faith affiliation is a hindrance or help in our space. We anticipate this discussion continuing for the next decade, when it will be decided by leading-edge Gen-Xers who will vote with their dollars when moving into a community.



Derek Dunham

Do you know what the world’s best-selling album is?

Up until early-September 2018, it was Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” A masterpiece of modern musical artistry, few thought it would be dethroned anytime soon. Then, something unexpected happened: Baby Boomers started buying one of their favorite records — “Their Greatest Hits (1971–1975)” by the Eagles. Suddenly, the King of Pop found himself dethroned by Don Henley and his crew.

It’s been said that musical tastes are solidified in your early 30s. Whatever music you are jamming to during that phase of your life will probably become your sound for decades to come. For Baby Boomers, this means that Paul McCartney, Fleetwood Mac, Pink Floyd, the Bee Gees, Queen and the Who (just to name a few) are most likely responsible for the tunes that most Boomers enjoy. This probably isn’t a surprising idea, but for retirement communities, it can open up a whole new world.

Often, we encounter senior living organizations that want to recruit from the youngest demographic of Baby Boomers — and for good reason! They have plenty of income, will probably be stable residents once they move in and lend an air of vibrancy with their presence. Yet, when we look at the events that communities are using to attract these types of buyers, we find a disconnect. Swing music and big-band acts top the event circuit, when in reality, a Chicago cover band might be more in order.

It’s an important question to ask yourself — are you tailoring your events to the residents that you want, or are you creating events for the residents that are showing up? It’s a “chicken-egg” question, for sure. As senior living marketing professionals, we have to keep our communities filled and functional, so taking a chance on an act or event that appeals to a younger crowd — which might take longer to make a buying decision — can be a hard choice.

We’re not saying that you must change your event plans overnight; rather, we’re advocating for you to think of the big picture. In three to five years, how will your community be engaging with Boomers? What music is playing when they come in the door? Are the activities appealing to the right age demographic? It’s easy for us to get stuck in our day-to-day roles and suddenly find ourselves unable to step back and look ahead.


Derek Dunham

The 2018 LeadingAge Tennessee Annual Conference & Vendor Showcase is now in the books, and it was a great event. Gwyn Earl and her team deserve major kudos for pulling off a fine event. We, at Varsity, were pleased to host the conference Lounge, as well as to exhibit during the Showcase. In between these times, we took the opportunity to check out some of the sessions and engage with our colleagues in the volunteer state. As is tradition here at Varsity, we’ve wanted to look back on three major themes we picked up from the event and share them with all of you who may not have been able to attend.

1. The need for conscious communication has never been greater.

For us, Dr. Donna Van Natten was an excellent addition to the conference line-up. She specializes in nonverbal communication and led a couple of sessions on that topic. Of course, the Varsity team made for easy pickings as she provided examples of both positive and negative nonverbal cues. While this information is great in the business world, it also has major applications for those working directly with residents. Being conscious of your nonverbal communication — and being able to read the nonverbal communication of others — could make the difference between a good interaction and a great one. When was the last time you thought about how the placement of a chair in the room could help someone make an important decision? Dr. Van Natten has, and her excellent session really made us think about our communication strategies.

2. The death of the dining room

Much discussion was had around changes to the dining experiences created by providers. One of this year’s LeadingAge TN Innovation Awards went to a provider that dramatically changed the dining experience for its residents. Gone was the dining room, institution meal trays and bland plate covers. The provider replaced this service with localized dining stations throughout the community, manned by chefs who prepared foods mere steps from residential areas. Now, residents wake up to the smell of bacon sizzling and warm maple syrup, completely changing how they dine. This is a trend that we are seeing nationwide, with more intimate and customizable dining experiences being provided to those in assisted living and higher levels of care. It’s heartwarming to see the changes developed in the independent living space being transferred to other campus areas, as well as the level of impact this is having on resident satisfaction.

3. Retirement as a destination

If you haven’t been to Nashville recently, you may be unaware of how much it has become a tourist destination. One of our Varsity team members described it as the Times Square of the South. This rang especially true as we heard stories from providers describing how new residents were moving great distances to a community in Tennessee. From the Northeast to Los Angeles, people are retiring to Tennessee in droves. While some of these people may not be moving directly into Life Plan Communities, many are opting for 55+ communities that could easily lead to a provider’s doorstep. Tennessee is an especially attractive place for retirement — warm summers, mild winters, beautiful scenery, thriving food scenes and fantastic entertainment options all combine for a great independent retirement lifestyle. This, coupled with the recent influx of young families to the area, could create a retirement boom as older adults decide to move closer to their younger family members. Many providers with which we work rely on the local community within 20 miles of their property for most of their new residents. However, if a campus is appropriately positioned, with some creative marketing, it could go from a regional provider to a national retirement destination.

Once again, we want to thank all of our friends for a great conference experience in Franklin, Tennessee, and we wish all the best to the providers of that great state as they continue to live “Life on Purpose” as members of LeadingAge.

Derek Dunham

Aging services marketing is becoming more sophisticated each day. Providers continue to add tools to their marketing toolboxes, including a plethora of new digital marketing options. From IP targeting to marketing automation and display retargeting, each of these tactics comes with benefits as well as costs. How well do you understand them?

Created by our in-house communications team, and based on real-world experience in managing digital marketing campaigns for aging services organizations, we believe this publication will be an excellent tool for you and your team to better understand the digital marketing options available to you.

If you’d like to receive a copy of the guide, complete the form below, and we’ll send it your way!
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Derek Dunham

What do you call a single-family, detached or semi-detached residence at your community? Is it a villa, a cottage, a townhouse or something else entirely? I’ve worked with aging services providers that have built homes that are exactly the same, in two different locations, calling them a villa in one community and a cottage in another. Outside of the physical location of the structures, they were identical in every way.

This led us to wonder ­— are we, as aging services marketers, confusing potential residents because of the language we use to describe our products?

Let’s go back to the basics. What’s the definition of each of these housing types? For the purpose of consistency, we’ll utilize as our point of reference for our definitions.

Villa — a country resident or estate; in British parlance, it can also denote a semidetached dwelling house, usually suburban

Cottage — a small, usually one-story, modest dwelling that could be owned or rented, sometimes as a vacation home

Townhouse — a house in the city, especially as distinguished from a house in the country owned by the same person; one of a row of houses joined by common sidewalls

Condominium — an apartment house or other multi-residence complex in which the residences are individually owned but with shared responsibility for common areas

Bungalow — a cottage of one story; popular during the first quarter of the 20th century, usually having one and a half stories, a widely bracketed gable roof and a multi-windowed dormer, frequently built of rustic materials

Mew(s) — a place of retirement; chiefly British; a street having small apartments

Carriage house — a small home, usually part of a larger estate, adjacent to a main house

I’ve found all of these terms used to describe residences in one community or another. Objectively, many of these residences were very similar, the only major difference being whether they were detached residences or not.

Put yourself in the shoes of Boomer or seniors that are attempting to compare options and services. They may be trying to decide whether your 1,700-square-foot villa is comparable to another community’s 1,700-square-foot cottage. Or maybe they are considering a 1,200-square-foot carriage house or townhouse. Do the descriptors “cottage” or “bungalow” equate to “small” in their minds, or does “villa” make them think of a memorable trip to Tuscany? The sheer brainpower it takes to sift through all of the options could be staggering.

Throughout the years, branding has shown us that the best-selling products are those that can be described simply and that can easily show their value. Can you say that about the residence mix at your community? Perhaps your community isn’t even the challenge, but other campuses surrounding yours are using different language in an attempt to position themselves in the market. How could this trend be helping or hurting your marketing efforts?

This post is somewhat rhetorical. We don’t have a succinct answer to the problem; rather, we want to ask the question and start a conversation. How much does the language we use matter? Does it create confusion in the marketplace simply because we want to make a product sound more appealing? What will we be calling our senior living residences of the future?

All I know is that, as long as I’m not living in a tiny house, I think I’ll be okay.

Derek Dunham

Over the last week, we’ve heard reported the deaths of several celebrities who chose to take their own lives. One of the highest profile of these was Anthony Bourdain, famed chef and world traveler. He was 61 years old, squarely placing him in the Baby Boomer demographic. From early reports we’ve received, few people knew of Bourdain’s struggles with mental health. This highlights an issue in the world of aging services, and it is one we often do not like to talk about — the mental health of our Boomers and seniors.

An April 2016 issue of The Week magazine sums it up concisely, with a headline blaring “U.S. suicides have reached 30-year high, led by Baby Boomers.” The article notes that Americans age 45 to 64 have shown a massive increase in suicides, with women’s rates jumping 63 percent, while men climbed 43 percent. The author further notes that the Boomer generation has always suffered from abnormally high suicide rates, so it should come as no surprise that this trend has continued as they age.

Scientists and researchers, noticing this alarming surge in self-harm, started to research the root causes affecting Boomers. In a 2015 article in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Dr. Katherine Hempstead and Dr. Julie Phillips released the results of their study on this phenomenon. Their review of the data showed that suicide in the Boomer population tended to occur for a combination of three reasons.

  1. External circumstances, such as the loss of a job, a personal financial crash or legal distress. They further discovered a correlation between the Great Recession of 2008 and Boomer suicide rates, which makes sense, as Boomers were unduly impacted by the 2008 financial crisis.
  2. Boomers are feeling a loss of power as their generation leaves the boardroom and the workforce, which has been such a defining factor in their lives. Aging out of the workforce also means lower income, which for many Boomers can lead to credit and financial difficulties.
  3. Last, and most pointedly to us, is the issue of retirement. As people age into their 50s and 60s, they suddenly realize that they haven’t saved properly for retirement. The stress of financial instability and the thought that some might never retire can certainly cause some extreme feelings of helplessness.

This begs the question: What can we, as aging services providers, do to help keep our residents mentally healthy? The best place to start is to simply talk openly and honestly about the issue. Remember — Boomers come from a generation in which mental health issues were stigmatized. The first step in bringing about awareness is to engage your residents on the topic. Ask them how they are doing, and listen to their responses with empathy. When they do share a concern, respond with reassurance and hope. If there is an available resource for support, put them in contact with that help. Finally, after your initial conversation, stay engaged. By building a long-standing relationship with a resident, you’re more likely to notice changes in his or her mental condition.

Coming to grips with Boomer suicide can be difficult. For younger people, Boomers often appear to be on top of the world. They have money, great careers, families and can soon retire from the workforce to pursue their passions. However, just under the surface, are issues that people don’t realize — a failure to adequately save funds, the death of loved ones, declining health and more. We, as a society, must face down our stigma of mental health among aging populations and provide them with the support they need.

Anthony Bourdain said, “I have the best job in the world. If I’m unhappy, it’s a failure of imagination.” Did his imagination fail him, or did we, as a society?


Derek Dunham

Your elderly widower neighbor, Mr. Johnson, has always been a jovial and social member of the community. About a year ago, he had a stroke that took its toll, but after a couple of months, he seemed to bounce back and was living in his home as usual again.

Last month, you noticed a pink slip taped to his door that was warning of his electric being shut off for nonpayment. Come to think of it, you haven’t seen him in a couple of weeks. That’s when you realize that his mailbox is stuffed to the gills and overflowing. You knock on his door, and he comes to greet you, smiling as always.

When you inquire about the slip and the mail, he tells you that his children are handling all of those items for him now, so he’s just leaving them in place until his daughter comes to visit next week. When you ask him if he needs any help around the house, he politely rejects your offer, saying that he has it under control. He points to his cat and remarks how chubby he is getting from being well-fed. He assures you that everything is fine and seems to genuinely appreciate your visit. You walk away from the house, feeling confident that Mr. Johnson is okay. Little do you know, he’s in an abusive situation because of self-neglect.

Elder abuse is a serious topic that aging services organizations have invested millions of dollars in preventing. They’ve trained their staff and volunteers to look for signs of abuse and actively report any issues that may arise. The culture around abuse has changed for the better, and older adults are living longer, happier lives because of it. Yet, there is still one area of elder abuse that we can’t seem to get our hands around: self-neglect.

A 2014 survey conducted by the National Association of Professional Geriatric Care Managers found that self-neglect among seniors was the most common form of non-financial elder abuse/neglect. Everyone knows to look out for signs of physical, sexual and even financial abuse among those they care for, but self-neglect can be a bit harder to spot and is easily written off as a personal or lifestyle choice rather than a form of abuse.

So, when does self-neglect rise to the level of truly being abuse that should be reported by a caregiver? Here are six signs to watch out for, as reported in the study:

  1. A decline in personal hygiene, such as unkempt hair, failure to bathe regularly and inability to keep up with basic grooming habits
  2. Failure to take medication on time and on schedule
  3. Malnutrition or dehydration
  4. Unsanitary living conditions
  5. Inability to meet financial deadlines, such as unpaid bills, shut-off utilities, etc.
  6. Weight loss, especially in light of food insecurity in the home

These signs all seem like they’d be very obvious to an outsider providing care, yet in practice, the signs can be much harder to spot, as the opening story illustrates.

We encourage everyone who is working in the aging services space to always remember to be on the lookout for signs of self-neglect, as they can occur both in the home and in retirement communities.


Derek Dunham

Life Plan Communities (sometimes known as CCRCs) have blossomed in popularity in recent decades. By providing a continuum of care that offers security and peace of mind, these organizations are appealing to a wider range of ages than ever before. Many of our partners are marketing to individuals in their early 60s while still caring for residents nearing their centenary celebration (and beyond). This trend creates a unique situation where people of very different ages and generations are residing in these communities.

Think about it for a second — people who are neighbors in your community may easily have an age difference of 20 to 30 years. Certainly, the cultural and generational differences between these individuals are going to play a role in how they interact with and perceive your campus. This isn’t likely to change, either. In the future, we could easily find ourselves working in communities that have Millennial, Gen X and Boomer residents all under one roof. Whenever you gather people with such diversity, conflicts will naturally occur. One of the issues that we’ve identified as a growing trend is resident-on-resident ageism.

Ageism seems to be a problem that starts subtly but can grow into a cancerous blight on the spirit of your community. It may first emerge as something that looks like convenience: Older residents dine earlier or use the pool at different times than younger residents. What begins as a solution to scheduling can deepen into a major divide. Soon, younger residents don’t want to go to dinner too early because they are avoiding dining with “those old people.” More than once, we’ve heard an able-bodied, young resident question a sales person as to why he or she allowed a frail, older resident to move in. Suddenly, your younger residents have become condescending to people older than them, not because of overt disrespect, but from living a separated life within the community.

Unfortunately, more often than not, we as marketers and community operators are responsible for some of these issues. When creating marketing materials, we eschew individuals who use mobility devices in favor of younger, more active residents. Why wouldn’t we? That’s the market we are trying to attract, right? Yet, we’ve heard from current residents of the alienation they feel when they see shiny new pamphlets that fail to accurately represent the community.

Once, we were on a photo shoot, taking pictures of model residents. A current resident approached us and dressed us down for lying to our consumers, saying that these “young” people were fake and not an accurate depiction of life in the community. Here, we find an older resident displaying negative behaviors toward someone she perceived as being younger and who didn’t represent her life or values.

Another great example can be found in resident “ambassador” programs. These initiatives are a great idea and often come from a desire to connect new residents with established community members who can help them transition into community life. Yet, when we are picking these ambassadors, what do we do? Of course, we pick the young, active members of the community. What message might this send, though?

Here in the Varsity office, we have several team members whose own families reside at retirement communities. One mother was serving as a resident ambassador for her community. She loved the position, and it gave her an outlet for energy; yet, within the last six months, she hasn’t been called upon as much to help out. When she inquired why, she learned that several other residents had expressed concerns that she was too old for the job and that her age wasn’t a good representation of the community. One can only imagine how dejected and unvalued she felt.

We all must realize that this kind of subtle discrimination and ageism happens in a myriad of ways in communities every day. Rarely does it come from a truly negative place; rather, it’s natural for mankind to create groupings that form out of mutual interests. Unfortunately, these groups also immediately create an “other” — people who are outside of the crowd and who don’t feel welcome.

Sadly, there’s no magic bullet to fix this kind of issue. As we’ve demonstrated, it can even be challenging to realize that resident-on-resident ageism is happening in the first place. We encourage you to take a look at your programs and policies and ensure that they aren’t endorsing subtle resident-on-resident ageism. What may be challenging changes now could prove to be a boon to your organization in the future.

Derek Dunham

Over the holidays, the Varsity team was saddened to learn of the passing of our colleague, Sal J. Molite Jr.

Sal had served as the president of Edenwald Communities in Towson, Maryland, since 1988. His passion and dedication for the aging services industry was well known, and he was respected as a leader, serving as a mentor to many. He served as the chairman of MANPHA and was honored with the prestigious Chairman’s Award.

Edenwald was as much a part of Sal as he was a part of the community. His desire to keep the campus modern and fresh has been an important part of the organization’s success. Sal treated his team members like family and always reminded them of the importance of the mission. His favorite question was, “Why are we here?”

A family man, Sal was a devoted husband to Diane and dedicated father to Chris Nick. His proudest accomplishment was becoming a grandfather to Grace, Zachary, Dominic and Rocco.

We at Varsity extend our deepest condolences to Sal’s family and the Edenwald organization. He was a true friend and colleague that always made us strive to do better.

Requiescat in pace

Derek Dunham

“Did you notice that she didn’t come to lunch yesterday?”

“Have you heard who he’s sleeping with?”

“Oh, she’s a mess. She doesn’t comb her hair, and she always smells funny.”

Where do you think these quotes originate? Perhaps in a middle school cafeteria during lunch, or after a high school sports practice? Scarily enough, they could be happening right now, at any aging services community in the world. Bullying like this isn’t just a problem that afflicts young people. Increasingly, Boomers and seniors are becoming the victims of bullying by their peers.

A study released by Dr. Robin Bonifas of Arizona State University cites that 10 to 20 percent of residents of senior living communities have experienced some form of bullying. Take a moment to think about that number. This means that, between one in 10 to one in five residents have been bullied!

We can already hear you saying, “That doesn’t happen at my community! All of our residents are nice, lovely people who would never do that.” While we have every confidence that your community is a wonderful place to live, we also have to recognize that, when large groups of people live together in close surroundings, they are naturally going to come into conflict. For some, the way of handling these conflicts is to engage in negative behaviors that they may not even realize they are displaying.

While physical bullying is more common among younger groups, social and emotional bullying is the forte of older adults. Examples of bullying that fall into these categories are exclusion from social activities, the spreading of rumors and gossip, and negative personal speech. These behaviors can be further amplified by physical conditions, such as dementia and mental health issues. Where once someone was a loving and caring person, he or she might become negative and hurtful with the onset of dementia or after suffering from pain for a long period of time.

So, what can you do as an aging services professional to ensure that bullying doesn’t occur at your community? First, keep an open mind to the fact that it may be happening. Be mindful of residents’ behavior toward one other, and listen to what residents are saying about each other. Be certain to not agree with a resident’s negative actions or statements; rather, remind him or her that his or her behavior could be hurtful, and try to help the resident empathize with how the other person might feel.

A great resource for more information on this trend — and for ways to cope with bullying behavior — can be found at, here:

Whether we want to believe it or not, bullying is happening in our communities, and we must be cognizant of the impact that it has on resident life quality. Paying attention to the warning signs now can help to avoid bigger conflicts in the future.

Derek Dunham

In the aging services space, especially as it pertains to retirement community and rehabilitation services, 90 percent occupancy is an important benchmark. If you look at occupancy rates from key sources, such as NIC and Zeigler, you’ll find 91 percent to be about average as of late. At this level, most organizations have their costs covered and are probably in the black financially.

However, many organizations struggle to get above the 90 percent mark for a number reasons, including resident turnover, the time needed to remodel apartments and cottages, and the lead time it takes for a new resident to sell his or her house and move in. Thus, 90 percent has taken on the air of acceptability.

At Varsity, we strive for 100 percent occupied and reserved — not just because it sounds nice, but because that remaining 10 percent can be the difference between new community development, community improvements, higher wage increases and increased resident and staff satisfaction.

Let’s look at it from the financial standpoint first. For this example, we’ll start with a community that has 100 residences: 60 apartments and 40 cottages.

The apartments generate $1,000 a month in profit over and above costs for service, while cottages generate a similar $1,500 per month. (For simplicity, we’re going to disregard entrance fees, contract types and other mitigating factors that could cause confusion.)

This means that, during a single year, the apartments generate $720,000 of pure income, with the cottages creating an additional $720,000 — for a total of $1.44 million per year in profit.

Now, let’s look at the impact of an occupancy rate of only 90 percent each month — meaning that 10 of the 100 residences are unoccupied.

Seven empty apartments = $7,000 in lost income

Three empty cottages = $4,500 in lost income

That’s $11,500 in lost revenue each month, or $138,000 each year! While this a simplistic example, we think it’s important to realize just how much financial impact that 10 percent can have each month.

We do realize that true 100 percent occupancy isn’t sustainable. So, let’s imagine if your team can reach 95 percent occupancy consistently each month — an increase of only five percentage points. Now, you’re only leaving 5 percent of that revenue on the table. That’s an additional $69,000 in yearly income, which can still have quite an impact on the bottom line. It is that additional revenue that will help spur new community growth, provide increased wages and enable staff to address resident satisfaction concerns in a proactive way.

So, how do you tackle the challenge of selling that remaining 10 percent? In our next post, Jackie Stone, our VP of sales consulting, will share some of her insights for overcoming the 90 percent plateau that will help drive your community to be 100 percent occupied and reserved.

Derek Dunham

As LeadingAge wraps up another very successful annual conference, the Varsity team took a step back to discuss what we heard throughout the various presentations and our discussions with colleagues. Our list contains seven items that we believe are going to be critical as we forge into 2018 and beyond.

  1. Welcome to information overload! As professionals in the field of aging services, we are being provided with more data than we have ever been before. Not only do we have to be able to understand what the data represents, but we must also be able to apply it in a way that leads to growth for our partners. This means knowing what data points to focus on as key performance indicators, and which to ignore as white noise that can only serve to distract our plans.
  2. The continuum is changing rapidly and becoming more complex to manage. As residents enter into more skilled levels of care — and remain in those beds longer — we are learning much as a field. Of course, with this additional knowledge comes a change to best practices and regulations. The speed at which these adjustments are occurring is faster than ever before. This, coupled with all of the moving parts of the care continuum, is really forcing providers to react in the moment rather than plan a measured response.
  3. Aging services is an aging field. If you take a look across the country, many of the most successful and longest-serving C-suite office-holders are nearing retirement. They made excellent careers in aging services and stayed at their employers for decades. Now, as they near retirement, their organizations are concerned about what a change at the top might mean. Succession planning and internal training are top of mind for many LeadingAge members as they begin to wrestle with who will fill the shoes of leadership in the future.
  4. What a retirement community looks like is changing. Anyone working in aging services is familiar with the biggest player in the field: The Villages, in Florida. This community changed what it meant to retire. Then came along NORCs – naturally occurring retirement communities — where individuals of similar age found themselves living in close proximity, creating a little community all their own. The next evolution of this model, dubbed “Boomtown,” places emphasis on intentional intergeneration communities that bring together people of all ages to the benefit of the whole. Focusing on the entire spectrum of wellness, the Boomtown model works to seamlessly integrate senior living spaces into existing communities.
  5. Life Plan at Home extends community reach. The Life Plan at Home model is quickly becoming the next big thing in retirement marketing. By enabling potential residents to enter the system without actually moving the community, the Life Plan at Home model creates a revenue stream now and ensures new on-campus residents in the future. By partnering with third-party program providers, aging services providers are growing their scope and reach, engaging with potential residents and working them into the sales funnel earlier than ever before.
  6. Communities must know their place in the market. Every community is unique because of the residents and team members that make up the campus. Knowing the core values of your community is important to your marketing message — do you understand how you are perceived in the marketplace?When a potential resident is shopping around for aging services, he or she often visits many different campuses and talks to people with deep field knowledge. As shoppers discuss their choices, they are given feedback, with perceptions on what a community is like. What are people saying about you? Are you “luxurious and cultured” or perhaps “rich and snobby”? It’s amazing how quickly others will ruin a reputation by twisting a brand identity.
  1. Consumers are loyal to authentic organizations. What does it mean to be authentic? In short, it means that your organization actively acts ethically and according to your mission and values. In aging services, this is accomplished through a strong and distinct sense of identity that goes above and beyond the business. It means that all of your actions align with your mission and help advance your cause.At Varsity, our signature brand odyssey process directly relates to authenticity. We help you identify how your brand is perceived, how the mission aligns with that perception, and what actions you can take to become more authentic moving forward. Check out our Branding & Marketing page to learn more!
Derek Dunham

Viagra. CIALIS. Levitra. ADDYI.

Surely you recognize some of these brand-name drugs. They all have one thing in common: They are designed to help with sexual dysfunctions that disproportionately affect Boomers and seniors. When these drugs rose to prominence in the 1990s and early 2000s, communities found themselves confounded by a problem that they had never encountered before — the sexual activities of their residents. Fast forward to today, when campus administrators are all too aware of the challenges that come with residents’ sexual expression.

Sexuality is a private matter, but with any large group of people living in close proximity, human nature cannot be overcome. Retirement communities are not magical places where people move after their sex drives turns off. Studies continue to show that adults are remaining sexually active longer than ever before — and are becoming more adventurous than previous generations.

According to the Longitudinal Study of Aging, 31 percent of British men aged 80 to 90 are still sexually active. That number grows to 60 percent for those 70 to 80. Aging women are also sexually active, with 34 percent of women aged 70 to 80 regularly engaging in some form of sexual expression. In fact, the National Council on Aging has found that women over the age of 70 find sex more physically satisfying than when they were in their 40s or younger!

The reason behind the increase in sexual activity in older adults becomes obvious if you ponder it for a moment. First, people are living longer, healthier lives! With an emphasis on wellness, fitness and nutrition, older adults are now in physically better shape than they were at similar ages in previous generations. Then, we have to factor in the pharmaceutical sexual revolution that was created by the drugs mentioned at the beginning on this article. They enable sexual activity to continue to occur far longer than nature may have provided for. Lastly, the current generation of Boomers also happens to be the generation that came of age in the 1960s. The Summer of Love and the Age of Aquarius may still be holding sway today, half a century later.

These changes are having direct effects on the day-to-day management of communities. Relationships developing between residents are common — and now more than ever, probably include a sexual component. Women outnumber men on campuses significantly, leading to a situation of supply and demand between the sexes that can cause interpersonal conflict to arise. These conflicts may not be limited to your community, either! As family members learn of these relationships, they may look to staff to intervene on their behalf; however, residents are adults and can make their own decisions, even if their children aren’t happy with them. This puts administrators and managers in precarious situations, dealing with sensitive topics that they might have never thought about before.

Let’s face it — sexual activity is more than likely occurring between residents on retirement campuses nationwide. The statistics don’t lie. As professionals in the aging services industry, it’s our job to understand the trends we’re seeing in our residents and respond appropriately to protect their well-being. Sex is just another aspect of wellness that is coming to the forefront and is one that we all must be aware of.

Derek Dunham

This past week, I had the pleasure of attending the third of four regional conferences being held this year by the United Methodist Association of Health and Welfare Ministries. Held in Boulder, Colorado, the event centered on development and engagement. For those who were unable to attend, you missed a great event with some excellent speakers. As I reflect on the session, I found that I came away with three key points from which I think that every person working in the aging services field can benefit.

Development must be part of the branding process.

When we undertake a branding process at Varsity, we look at the organization holistically. From the frontline staff all the way up to the C-suite, it’s important that everyone in the organization can articulate the brand and feel empowered by it. During the conference, many development professionals shared that they sometimes feel overlooked in the branding process. At Varsity, we work to include all departments in our Brand Odyssey, especially development, as we understand how important they are to any nonprofit organization.

Arguably, development is one of the most public faces of your brand. They are the ones going out into the community and working to articulate your mission and values to potential donors. If they don’t feel like the brand matches their goals, or they are forced to adapt a brand to their needs, it becomes harder for them to do their jobs. Marketers ― especially in faith-based, mission-focused senior living organizations ― desire brands that speak to vitality, energy and continued life. Meanwhile, studies have proven that donors are more likely to make contributions to organizations that they feel are helping those experiencing hardship. These two messages can easily be at odds! During our branding process, we strive to keep this in mind and balance the needs of both sides of the organization.

Digital marketing isn’t just limited to filling apartments; it’s great for donors, too!

We all know that it takes money to make money. The same is true for development. You have to invest time and resources into reaching the right potential donors ― at the right time, with the right message. Digital marketing, both through search engines and social media, provide this exact capability. But, because of the time and effort it takes to execute such tactics and then analyze the results, many development professionals shy away from them. Why wouldn’t they? In-person discussion sessions are far more likely to end up with a gift than a single digital ad. But, as Millennials begin to further explore charities, meeting them in the areas in which they congregate ― namely, on the web ― is going to be an important part of any development tool kit.

Think of it this way: If you could run targeted ads about your current capital campaign directly to people in a specific age range within your community, with additional data that says they are more likely to donate than the average person, would you do it? What if you could reach 5,000 of those people for less than $50? One or two donations would likely cover the cost of the campaign, so the rest is pure gifts for your organization!

Are you engaging, not only with current residents, but also with their friends and extended family as donors?

One statement that we seemed to hear over and over again was that the largest and best gifts usually come from those who directly benefit from the services offered by the organization. Sure, most development professionals know the value of establishing relationships with the current service users. However, expanding that reach to the children and family is a great way to work the same angle (those who have benefitted from the service) but also expand your potential donor base into adjacent areas.

I tip my hat to the United Methodist Association team for their hard work in putting together an excellent conference. At Varsity, we love seeing their member organizations succeed and grow, and we look forward to many more events together in the future!

Derek Dunham

Volunteers form the backbone of many retirement community programs. Whether they are current residents that volunteer their time to make the community better or outside volunteers looking to give back, both groups provide valuable services at little cost to the community. However, finding reliable individuals for volunteer commitments can be a struggle. We’ve identified three recruitment methods that you might not have thought about that could help you boost your volunteer program.

VolunteerMatch is the biggest player in online volunteer recruitment. The site lets you post volunteer openings and search a database of potential volunteers, based on interest and location. You can also find experienced volunteers with skills that relate to what you need for your population. This is especially useful when looking for individuals to work with more challenging groups, such as those with dementia or mobility issues.

Website Recruitment

Businesses have gotten very savvy at the recruitment process for employees. They have online applications, screening systems and processes in place to help streamline onboarding. Why don’t we treat volunteers the same way?

Your website should have a volunteer portal, where prospective volunteers can submit their application online, including what areas of volunteering interest them and how much time they are willing to give. Accepting applications this way can help you build your own database of potential volunteers to help in times of need.

Just putting up a portal may not be enough, though! If your online portal isn’t getting many submissions, you may want to think about running an online volunteer recruitment campaign. Social media marketing offers a great way to advertise your volunteer program to those who may be interested. For less than $500, you can run several ads on Facebook, targeting different demographics, and have them taken right to your volunteer portal to learn more and submit an application.

Ask Your Donors

Donors are the bread and butter of many nonprofit retirement organizations — they provide the funding to accomplish the mission. However, have you ever asked them to donate something other than money? Getting your donors to give of their time, instead of their wallet, could be more lucrative than you realize. For instance, if you have a donor base of professionals, the services they could offer pro bono might be worth more than the dollars they are giving. How much would it cost for you to hire someone to do the job they are willing to do for free? The best part is, you already have the names and contact information for these individuals. Taking a moment to ask for their time could pay off with big returns.

At Varsity, we know the value of volunteers and the struggle communities can have to recruit them. However, if you adjust your recruitment strategy just a bit, you may find a new source of volunteers that not only boosts your programs but reenergizes your entire organization.


Derek Dunham

Potential residents and their families are increasingly turning to the internet to aid in their search for a retirement community. Nearly every community has a website, and most employ lead-generating tactics on them (contact page, downloadable brochures, etc.). But there is always room for improvement. Over a period of three weeks, we’ll provide you with three actionable tips that you can use to improve your digital footprint.

This week, we’re issuing you a challenge to test your SEO.

If you’re doing any kind of digital marketing, you’ve heard the term “SEO” bandied about like a magic bullet; we’re here to tell you that it’s not. Creating quality SEO takes hard work, commitment and deep thought. It’s an art, not a science.

Let’s do an exercise. Open a new tab and go to Google. Now, search to find your community without using its name or the town in which it is located. How long did it take you to find it? How far down on the list was it? This exercise quickly shows that if your search engine optimization strategy is to reinforce your name and the town where your community is, you are missing potential leads.

When creating a website, think holistically about how a person would find each page via a search. If you are optimizing for the phrase “Independent Living Tacony PA,” how many searches do you think you’ll pick up? Tacony isn’t well-known to those outside of the Philadelphia area. Put yourself in the user’s shoes; he or she wants the best search results for the least amount of effort. A better search term to optimize for might be “Independent Living near Philadelphia” or “Southeastern PA Independent Living.”

This sort of deeper thinking is one of the factors that sets a truly great website apart. Critically thinking about the SEO of, not just the homepage, but of every page on the website will help increase leads that convert to sales. By being intensely curious about online consumer behavior, we have been able to identify areas of improvement for our clients’ websites and provide them with a digital strategy that puts them at a distinct advantage in an increasingly online world.

Derek Dunham

Chocolate gets eaten, flowers wither, but how do you make love last? In honor of Valentine’s Day, we asked a couple in their 80s how they’ve kept their love strong through 60 years of marriage. (Guess what? Celebrating Valentine’s Day didn’t even make the list!)

Here’s what they said:

  1. One or both should tell the other how much they are loved every day. Very important!
  1. Maintain a balance of responsibilities — which is easier said than done.
  1. Cultivate independent interests and encourage each other to do so. Too much togetherness can be a mistake.
  1. Do not criticize. Nobody is perfect. Criticism is rarely useful or effective.
  1. Talk to each other, and if there is a big topic, sit down and take time for it.
  1. Plan fun together. It is easy to neglect, but many trips and social activities require pre-planning. Spontaneity can wither away with age, which is natural. (I always  watch Monday Night Football. I eat brunch at the café every Sunday. We go to Palm Springs every winter, etc.)
  1. Try not to ventilate your problems too much to your other half. That can become a habit, but listening is wearying.
  1. Last but not least, when you catch sight of a full moon, make your partner look at it, too. Same goes for rainbows. This is an easy rule, but important.

So this year, let’s learn from the experts at love and look at a little less Monday Night Football and a few more full moons.

Derek Dunham

The secret to keeping residents engaged in the dining experience is to invigorate and empower your chefs. Here are a few ways that communities around the country are energizing their culinary team:

  1. Holding Food Network-influenced chef competitions where dueling culinarians must use offbeat ingredients or face other tough challenges
  2. Asking chefs to conduct cooking demonstrations, and letting residents taste the results
  3. Adding chef recipes, interviews and demos to their website or newsletter
  4. Sending cooking staff to culinary training or bringing noted chefs in to share their expertise
  5. Having chefs cook dishes, such as omelets or stir fries, out in the dining room
  6. Planning unusual-themed events with menus that go beyond the typical holiday brunch
  7. Changing the menu often — and allowing residents input
  8. Compiling a cookbook of favorite in-house recipes
  9. Celebrating the farm-to-table movement with fresh, locally sourced ingredients
  10. Working creatively with dietary restrictions to offer healthy food with a gourmet flair

How is your community keeping things fresh in the kitchen? Let me know at

Derek Dunham

Or maximize Medicare reimbursements? Or know early if a resident is unhappy? You can accomplish those goals and more though the power of data.

The benefits of big data analysis were explored in “Data-driven Decision-making: Gaining Clarity for Your Organization’s Direction,” a session at the LeadingAge Annual Meeting & Expo.

The presenters were Chip Burns, President/CIO, The Asbury Group Integrated Technologies; Kevin Purcell, PhD, Chief Data Scientist, Varsity; and Ed Lamberton, Application Development Manager, Asbury Communities Integrated Technologies.

In case you missed the session, here are a few quick takeaways:

  • Commitment to data is a competitive advantage in the ever-changing retirement living/health care space.
  • Data analysis should not be about a few canned reports at the beginning of the year, but about giving you the power to explore data independently.
  • Understanding connections in data can help you adjust quickly to changes in your local markets, meet new regulations and measure progress against strategic goals.

For the rest of the session’s insights, contact us for an in-person presentation.


Derek Dunham

The Rolling Stones prove that it can, by releasing their first studio album in 11 years on Friday. Want to hear some of it?

Click here for tracks and interviews in a CBS news article.

With an average age of 72, these rockers have proven that age is just a number by recording their latest album more than half a century after their first one. “Blue & Lonesome,” which takes the band back to its blues roots, was recorded in three days in London.

Playing music puts into practice many of the principles that can help us live longer, better — like keeping our minds active, moving naturally and having a strong social network. So we all might want to pick up an instrument, even if we don’t make millions doing it.


Derek Dunham

According to a 2016 Pew Research study, Baby Boomers and prior generations have cast the majority of votes in every presidential election since 1980.

However, the study also found that the political landscape is shifting, because younger voters matched Boomers and seniors in eligible votes in 2012 and are now estimated to outnumber them. Even with a lower turnout, voters 18-49 could still outvote Boomers and seniors in 2016.

Now that the election is over, we see that this prediction has come true. CNN exit polls show the vote’s makeup:  55% voters 18-49 and 45% voters 50 and up. So this is the year that Boomer and senior voting power begins to decline. Still, you’d never know it by the results of this election. Since the majority of older generations voted for Trump, (53% vs. 44-45% for Clinton) their votes propelled Trump to the White House. Stay tuned for 2020!

Derek Dunham

When kids are out trick-or-treating, they might want to hit up some houses over others.

84% of people 60 years and older give out candy on Halloween — more than any other age group, according to one study.  Seniors love answering the door to superheroes and pirates. But what if they live in a retirement community? There’s a simple answer: Welcome trick-or-treaters to your campus.

You can invite residents’ grandchildren, staffers’ children and even local neighborhood kids to trick-or-treat. The experience will not only benefit residents, but candy hunters as well — they won’t have to face the risks of crossing high-traffic streets at night in their black costumes. Residents can affix pumpkin- or bat-shaped signs to their doors to signal that they welcome trick-or-treaters.

So that residents unable to participate can still join in the fun, you can throw an all-age celebration with decorations, costumes and refreshments. Halloween is also the perfect time to invite prospective residents in for hot cider and pumpkin cookies.

Happy Halloween, all!

Derek Dunham

The number of older people who live alone at home continues to climb: 13 million in 2015. And, for women over 75, the numbers are even more shocking; 45% live alone, according to a recent article in the Philadelphia Inquirer that discusses the negative impact — both on parents and their children — of aging at home. Many seniors aren’t living safely yet refuse to move or even accept basic help. Their adult children essentially become their assisted living plan, putting emotional and physical strain on that caregiver.

One reason for the resistance to move: outdated perceptions about senior living. “Many older adults don’t like the idea of someone telling them when they’ll have their first cup of coffee or turn out the lights at night,” the article states. They don’t understand that senior living communities are not like the nursing home of old where they once visited their grandparents.

It’s up to us to assist adult children and to arm them with correct information and the key benefits of today’s senior living environment to prepare them for that difficult talk with mom and/or dad. One of the most common times for opening the dialogue is coming up: the holidays, when families get together and many times see a change in their parent’s abilities. We’ll offer advice for those tough family conversations in an upcoming blog.

Derek Dunham

At a time when Taylor Swift is having all kinds of aggravation with Kanye and Kim, here’s something that could cheer her up. Residents of the Julia Wallace Retirement Village in New Zealand, average age 82, have paid tribute to Taylor by recreating her video “Shake It Off.” The video, which took a week to film, already has over 100,000 views on You Tube. Enjoy!

Watch video.

Derek Dunham

Some popular retirement destinations didn’t make the cut, although Florida does rank in the top one-third. According to a recent Gallup report, Hawaii, Montana, South Dakota, Alaska and Iowa are the five states that ranked highest for total well-being in adults aged 55 or over.

The poll ranked each state on five elements of well-being: community, physical, purpose, financial and social — many of the same factors measured by the Blue Zones® study, which analyzes lifestyles in communities where people live significantly longer.

Not surprisingly, higher well-being aligns with a lower incidence of heart attack and other chronic diseases. Two of the states that made the top five for total well-being, Hawaii and Alaska, were also in the top five for fewest heart attacks. West Virginia, which ranked #50 for well-being, had the nation’s highest incidence of heart attack at 7.7%.

If you don’t happen to live in Hawaii or Alaska, there’s still good news. According to Gallup, well-being increases significantly as we age, in all fifty states.

Derek Dunham

Many senior communities pride themselves on welcoming new residents, but these days, they must roll out the red carpet for another group as well: the furry friends of those residents.

We’ve found through our own research that pets are extremely important to the next generation of retirees. As more and more Boomers turn 65, that trend is only expected to grow. Some communities already go beyond standard pet-friendly policies to offer added services catering to four-legged residents.

Pet-focused programs can also be offered in different forms at different care levels so that residents can continue to reap the important health benefits of interactions with animals as they age.

Here are ten pet-focused services communities may want to consider offering if they aren’t already:

  1. Dog park
  2. Yappy hour (residents bring pets to socialize during happy hour)
  3. Pet-related merchandise in the community gift shop
  4. Pet care program (walking, feeding, litter-changing, playful exercise, medication administration, etc.)
  5. Pet salon or mobile grooming
  6. Vet house calls
  7. Day care or boarding for pets
  8. Community dogs and cats
  9. Pet therapy
  10. Pet-oriented events like celebrations and adoption fairs

Marketing Insight:

As animal-loving Boomers enter the senior living market in droves, it’s time to fully capitalize on the health and financial benefits of providing their pets with creature comforts.

Derek Dunham

What should you call someone born between 1946 and 1964? The answer is surprisingly simple. Although mature market language can be a minefield, new research finds that the Boomer generation actually likes its nickname.

According to a 2015 study by the Pew Research Center, Boomers are more likely to embrace their generational label then any other age group. 79% of Boomers identify with their name, versus 18% of the Silent Generation, 58% of Generation Xers and 40% of Millennials.

Marketing insight: Although terms like “senior” don’t resonate with mature market consumers, the next generation of retirees may react more positively to “Boomer.”

Derek Dunham

How would you like to make life easier for elders, from folding clothes to taking meds? Just come to the Aging 2.0 30-event, 30-city, 30-day pitch tour, going on now through October 8. Start-ups in cities from Beijing to Boston are pitching tech inventions to panels of senior care providers. Winners will move on to the semi-finals, and finalists will present in San Francisco, November 19-20.

By partnering with one of these start-ups, communities can try out helpful new technology for their residents on a trial basis. A few of the innovations include:

Whether you want to explore a mutually beneficial community trial or attend one of the events, you can learn more here.

Derek Dunham

Just a reminder: Grandparents’ Day is this Sunday, September 13! Here are simple suggestions communities can use to make this Grandparents’ Day the grandest ever.

  1. Bring a smile to a resident’s face, with a “Happy Grandparents’ Day!”
  1. Post pictures of residents with their grandchildren on your community Facebook page.
  1. Encourage your community book club to read a book that highlights the important role of a grandparent.
  1. Feature a special story of a grandparent resident in your community newsletter.
  1. Ask grandparents to share photos of their grandchildren at an afternoon coffee or tea.
  1. Encourage grandparents to display photos of their grandchildren on the doors of their residences.

Find more grand ways to celebrate here.

Derek Dunham

Studies show that seniors who read stay mentally sharper and have a lower risk of dementia. But the truth about their reading habits is surprising.

According to a Pew Research study, only 70% of seniors have read a book in the last year, compared to 79% of millennials.

If your community library is appealing and well stocked, it could encourage more residents to read on a regular basis.  Below are some affordable suggestions to help make your library more inviting.

  1. Be creative about book donations. Book fairs, garage sales, resident donations, and organizations like Better World Books are all good sources.
  2. Recruit volunteers—especially former librarians. They can lead other volunteers and get your library into shape.
  3. Build community partnerships. Trading donations and cross-promoting literary events with your local library can be mutually beneficial.
  4. Hold a unique fundraising event. One Texas community held a highly successful three-day book festival complete with local authors.
  5. Get inspiration. Check Pinterest and other sites to see the innovative ideas other libraries have used.
Derek Dunham

What do many of the trends we’ve spotted lately have in common? They all do one important thing: nurture ties among people and communities.

  1. Connecting to Generations: Avanti Senior Living brainstormed with kids to create meals, programs and events just for them.
  1. Connecting to the Community: Smart design draws in locals through community centers, gyms, art galleries and restaurants, all of which are open to the public.
  1. Connecting to Safety: Residents at Episcopal Senior Communities wear pendants that connect them to the staff via wifi, so they feel safe anywhere on campus.
  1. Connecting to Discovery: “The Magic Table,” created by Dutch start-up, Active Cues, and reported in Mintel, allows residents to interact with words, images and games beamed down on a table from a smart projector.
  1. Connecting to Nature: A multisensory immersion environment in The Goodman Group’s memory care unit includes plant walls, ocean scents and star-like lighting.

How does your organization help people connect?

Derek Dunham

How would you complete the sentence: “Getting older is getting better because ______.”? That’s the question we have been asking friends of ours to spotlight the 2015 White House Conference on Aging, which took place earlier this month.

So far, we’ve gotten some interesting answers, including:

Getting older is getting better because …

…my fishing license is free!

…I am healthier.

…I get to spend time with grandchildren.

…I’ve learned to cherish the little things.

…my newly discovered diet makes me feel better.

…every experience I have builds on the one before it.

The White House has held a conference on aging every decade since the 1960s. The 2015 Conference is an opportunity to look ahead to the issues that will shape the landscape for older Americans in the next decade. Some important issues that will be discussed at the conference are retirement security, healthy aging, long-term services and support, and elder justice.

We’d love to hear how you’d complete the sentence: “Getting older is getting better because ______.” You can tweet your answer to us at @varsitybranding. For more information about the conference click here.

Derek Dunham

When we’re working with a client on a potential brand position, we ask three questions: Is it true? Is it unique? And is it compelling? All three of those qualities need to come together for a brand to work its hardest. In previous posts, I covered true, unique and compelling in detail. A quick recap:

  • True: The claim you’re making must be true. Otherwise, people may try your product—but they won’t buy it again. Some examples of brands that didn’t live up to their advertising: the Ford Edsel, Surge soda and WOW Chips.
  • Unique: The Unique Selling Proposition (USP) first discussed in the ‘40s still holds true today. It’s critical to find something that makes your product truly different. It’s all about that one promise that no one else in the market can make.
  • Compelling: Last but not least, if a proposition is true and unique, but not compelling to customers, they won’t be moved to act. How can we be sure our promise is on track? Research. Research. Research. We should never assume we know what consumers think before checking in with them.

True. Unique. Compelling. The right brand position will be all three.

Derek Dunham

In the words of David Ogilvy, “The most important decision is how to position your product.” But how do we make that decision? When we’re developing a brand position, we always measure it by three criteria: It has to be true, it has to be unique and it has to be compelling. In this post, I’ll cover “compelling.”

A brand promise can be true and unique, but if consumers don’t care about it, then you won’t make any sales. So, how do we find out—before your message is plastered all over the marketplace—if it’s compelling to your customers?

By doing research. Lots of it. This is especially important in senior living, where the media constantly tells us what the next generation wants and needs. We can’t just paint this demographic with a broad brush. We need to know what prospective customers in your market want.

That’s where interviews, focus groups and other check-ins become really important. Sometimes clients don’t think they need to talk to consumers because they already know what they’ll say. But we can find nuggets of great value amidst the things we already know. And these insights can help craft a message that customers find truly compelling.

Derek Dunham

When our team is working with a client to develop a brand position, we run it through a three-part filter and ask: Is it true? Is it unique? And is it compelling? In this post, I’ll cover “unique,” and why it’s so important to land on a unique selling proposition (USP).

The USP is a concept developed by advertising legend Rosser Reeves for Ted Bates back in the ‘40s. Quite simply, it means finding the one promise you can make that the competition can’t.

The USP is as relevant today as it was back then. In fact, Michael Porter put a twist on the USP with his philosophy, “Aim to be unique, not the best.” At Varsity, we agree with that thinking. Our team is always searching for that core truth that makes a client unique in the marketplace.

It’s not easy to find a benefit that separates your organization from the rest, but it’s critical to do so. That uniqueness doesn’t have to be related to a physical structure or amenities. It can be intangible, like an attitude, a personality or an entire culture.

Even when you find a brand position that’s true and unique, it still won’t connect with your customers unless they find it compelling. I’ll cover that in a future post.

Derek Dunham

Advertising great Bill Bernbach said, “The most powerful element in advertising is the truth.”

If you make a promise about your organization, it should be something that can’t be disputed when people walk through your doors. The promise can be aspirational or even transformational, but you have to live up to what you’re claiming in the marketplace.

For instance, you wouldn’t want to say you sell a safe car if it’s vulnerable in rear-end collisions, like the Ford Pinto was. As Jerry Della Femina said, “There is a great deal of advertising that is much better than the product. When that happens, all that will do is put you out of business faster.”

When we’re looking for insights about an organization, we start on the inside and work our way out. Our clients are the best ones to tell us about their culture. They can share the truths they’ve learned about their organization, from mission, vision and values to current and future services and goals.

Along with being true, your promise also needs to be unique and compelling. I’ll cover those qualities in future posts.

Derek Dunham

Medical expenses are the leading cause of bankruptcy in the U.S. As the Boomer generation hits retirement age, paying for healthcare will only get more challenging. So what’s the solution?


Some people turn to crowdfunding to fill in the gaps that Medicare and Social Security leave. The medical category is growing exponentially on sites like GoFundMe. According to a recent article in Time, “Medical, Illness and Healing” is GoFundMe’s most popular section, bringing in 26% of all donations. In 2014, it helped raise $147 million for medical costs, up from $6 million in 2012.

Crowdfunding does have drawbacks, especially for members of the 65 and over crowd, who often suffer from common chronic conditions of aging, not exotic diseases. According to a 2014 Georgia Tech study, showing that a condition is rare or unique drives people to donate. And in a New York Times story, a healthcare expert said, “The need for geriatric care is so far and wide that it’s hard to draw out interest.”

Some families with older relatives, having run out of options, feel they have no other choice but to ask for donations via crowdfunding. But what’s it like to be on the receiving end of these heartfelt electronic pleas? ?

In one case we know of, an entire group of extended family and friends received emails with a link to a crowdfunding site. One branch of the family was facing major financial expenses for their father, an elderly man with serious health issues. Because the father’s healthcare expenses had decimated his funds, his children felt they had no other option but to ask for contributions through the crowdfunding site. They plan to care for their father at home, and part of the donated money will go toward making the house wheelchair accessible.

Upon receiving the emails, the potential donors felt sympathetic to the situation, knowing how difficult it was for the man’s children to reach out. Still, the request caused a few ripples of controversy, as many of the family and friends were dealing with their own serious financial challenges. They pulled together and raised some money, but the man’s children are still short of their goal.

That’s not uncommon. Although some people are lucky enough to raise thousands of dollars through crowdfunding, most campaigns do not go viral and most pledges come from the user’s personal network of family and friends. The average amount raised at GoFundMe is just $1,126. Then, there are taxes to deal with, the site fee and the risk that the insurance company will deduct the amount received from its part of the payment.

For many people, crowdfunding is not a magic bullet. But, with hundreds of sites out there and more popping up all the time, it looks like it’s here to stay.

As healthcare expenses keep rising as our population ages, it seems that our inboxes may not only be clogged with medical bills, but with crowdfunding appeals.

Derek Dunham

Once again, Varsity participated in the LeadingAge PEAK Leadership Summit, which was held this March in Washington, D.C. And, once again, key leaders across the field of aging services gathered for lively discussions and to share ideas about the future of our industry.

We wanted to share a few key themes we heard in our conversations:

Shaping tomorrow’s leaders: Pivoting off the national dialogue around Larry Minnix’s retirement, we all need to nurture the next generation of talent.

Embracing a new model for growth and stability: In the midst of reform, providers need to think beyond traditional approaches and the status quo. The ones who succeed will be strategic and innovative in how they navigate the evolving marketplace.

Identifying nontraditional partnerships: In an age where technology is making partnerships more accessible, and the field of aging services is demanding fresh ways of thinking, providers who seek innovative partnerships will uncover new opportunities for sustained success.

Defining an industry through the NameStorm Project: The 35-year-old term, “CCRC,” has placed the emphasis squarely on “care” and “retirement.” Varsity is proud to be a partner in this LeadingAge/Mather LifeWays initiative to explore a fresh moniker for the field of aging services.

Our team would welcome the opportunity to discuss these insights or to simply begin exploring the right questions that will lead to solid strategies for your community’s continued success.

Derek Dunham

“What’s in a name?” This line from Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” has sparked a debate that has lasted for centuries. How important is a name—whether you’re a person, a business or a Continuing Care Retirement Community?

According to a Forbes article, four signs of a great business name are that you can pronounce it, it’s not too long, it’s straightforward, and it’s catchy. “Continuing Care Retirement Community” falls short on at least two of those fronts.

That’s one reason for “CCRC NameStorm.” In this national study, a task force is researching perceptions of the label “Continuing Care Retirement Community” and investigating alternative wording that would describe our communities more accurately—and appealingly. Varsity is on the NameStorm task force, along with LeadingAge, Mather Lifeways, GlynnDevins, SB&A, Brooks Adams Research, and Love & Co.

In the NameStorm study, quantitative and qualitative research is being conducted across the country with CCRC residents, prospects and staff as well as the community at-large.

If you plan on going to LeadingAge PEAK in Washington, D.C., March 16-18, 2015, we encourage you to attend a special session about CCRC NameStorm: “What’s in a Name: a Look at the CCRC Label,” which will provide insights on the current progress of this study.

The term “Continuing Care Retirement Community” was coined quite a few years ago when this type of organization was just taking shape. Now the senior living industry is seeing the next generation of retirees react negatively to an idea of a “care” facility.

I’m sure you have experienced that negative reaction, just as we at Varsity have. Part of the issue is that the CCRC label is focused on only one piece of the story—the care piece. It’s easy for the active Boomer retiree to say, “this isn’t for me.”

As part of CCRC NameStorm, we have conducted focus groups with prospective and current resident groups at Homestead Village, a community in the heart of Lancaster County in central PA. We’re thankful to our very good clients in one of the country’s most densely populated CCRC markets for opening their doors and sharing their honest opinions. So far, we’ve found that people are excited about the possibility of a name change, but it’s a change that needs to be carefully considered. (Remember Radio Shack becoming “The Shack”?)

This will be an ongoing discussion, and it will certainly be an interesting one. We hope you can make it for the session at LeadingAge. If not, check back on the Varsity blog. We’ll be continuing to post the progress of the NameStorm study.

Derek Dunham

How can marketers reach more Boomer shoppers this season? For answers, let’s turn to the blizzard of holiday shopping surveys out there.

First of all, will 2014 be dominated by Santas or Scrooges? The National Retail Foundation has tidings of joy: For the first time since 2011, holiday sales will increase more than 4%. However, a short selling season of just 27 shopping days doesn’t leave a lot of time to capture Boomer customers. So, what’s the best way to reach them? Although different surveys reached different conclusions, some common themes emerged.

The FIVE W’s of Boomer Holiday Spending

For WHOM are Boomers buying? According to the 2014 Mintel Holiday Forecasting Study, the purchase of most categories of gifts declines with age. However, women aged 55 and older are very likely to buy food to entertain the extended family at holiday meals. 82% of women aged 55 plus also buy gifts for family members, many of them earmarked for grandchildren. In fact, according to a recent Forbes article, Boomers spend a collective total of $35 billion a year on their grandkids.

WHAT are Boomers buying?
The generation that marched on Washington now leads the country in purchasing small, rectangular pieces of plastic. According to the Shullman Research Center, Boomers buy more holiday gift cards than any other demographic. 62% of Boomers purchase gift cards, more than Gen Xers (57%), Millennials (38%), and seniors (18%). Boomers are right on target with their gift choices: According to a National Retail Foundation study, gift cards are the most requested gift item for the eighth year in a row.

If your business doesn’t already offer gift cards, the holidays are a good time to start. If you already offer gift cards, consider offering them electronically. According to Pace Perspectives, electronic cards are gaining in popularity since plastic gift cards are so easily lost. In fact, 40% of 18-29 year olds admit to having lost at least one gift card.

WHERE are Boomers shopping?
According to Mintel, Boomers’ number one source for researching holiday gifts is the Internet, but many still prefer to make their purchases in the store. 43% of men ages 55 and up, and 38% of women in that age group, say they research items online, then wait to find them on sale in stores. How can you capitalize on their shopping habits? Mintel suggests offering online coupons that shoppers can redeem in the store.

WHEN do Boomers shop?
According to a recent PunchTab survey, Boomers are the least likely of any demographic to shop on Black Friday or in the entire month of November. They spread out their shopping throughout the season: 22% in September, 20% in October, 34% in November, and 21% in December. In contrast, Gen. Xers and Millennials do the bulk of their shopping in November.

WHY are Boomers buying?
During the holidays, it’s important to look at Boomers’ life stages, not just their ages. That’s because Boomers in larger households tend to spend significantly more than empty nesters in 1-2 person households. Another surprising fact reported by Mintel: Affluent Boomers do not necessarily spend more than their less-wealthy counterparts, unless they have children at home.

HOW do Boomers choose gifts?
According to PunchTab, Boomers are influenced by a number of sources. 62% ask friends and family for input, 61% browse in person, 50% check recipients’ wish lists, 39% browse brand websites, 38% read online reviews, 30% check flyers or catalogs, 24% open emails, 17% browse online magazines or blogs, 14 turn to Facebook, and 9% log on to PInterest.

Are Boomers motivated by price? Not as much as Gen Xers, according to the CFI Group Holiday Retail Spending Report. Only 23% of 55-65 year olds are influenced by sales and coupons, versus 40% of 25-34 year olds.

One final idea from Mintel to get cash registers ringing: Since only 11% of grandchildren currently give presents to their generous grandparents, how about leaving something for Boomer Santas under the tree? Art or photography classes, books for Kindle, or restaurant gift cards are all possibilities.