Author: Emily Runyon

Emily Runyon

The facts are clear: More Baby Boomers are working past what has been traditionally thought of as retirement age. In fact, a recent Pew Research Center study found that Baby Boomers are staying in the labor force at the highest annual rate for people their age in more than half a century.

Why Residents Still Work

We’re also hearing from communities that more residents are still working. That could mean full-time, part-time, freelance, consulting or owning a business. Financial reasons for continuing to stay in the workforce include not wanting to draw on social security and needing to help grown children financially. Some other reasons I’ve heard are nonfinancial. Residents are saying that working does some important things for them, like:

  • Keeps me connected socially to a group of people I have come to appreciate being with
  • Allows me an opportunity to keep my mind focused on something other than “retirement” and “getting old”
  • Stimulates my mind, helps me remain relevant and gives me a sense of purpose
  • Has always been such a significant part of my life — I can’t give it up yet

How Senior Communities Can Attract Them

So, how can senior living communities appeal to residents who are still working? Here are a few ideas:

  1. Evening fitness classes — Whether residents are working from home or going to an office, they may be busy during the day. Traditional classes at 10 or 11 in the morning just won’t work for them. The same goes for gym hours. This innovative wellness program  features a 24-hour gym and flexible class times.
  2. Smart home office design — When a couple I know moved into a retirement community, their apartment came with a small third bedroom. They redid it into an office, adding built-ins to make room for desks and storage, and made much smarter use of the space. Well-designed, highly functional office space that doesn’t need any remodeling to be effective could be a major draw.
  3. Highspeed internet — Wireless internet is the #1 desired amenity in senior living. It is even more important if a resident is working from home.
  4. Co-working spaces — Residents who work at home would appreciate a dedicated co-working space where they could interact with other working residents. Click here to see one example of an amazing co-working space for seniors.
  5. Work-related seminars and groups — Workshops and lectures on topics such as how to start a business or develop an online presence would be attractive to working residents and would help them build a network with their peers.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the labor force participation rate for the older segment of the population will continue to climb. Why not prepare your community by designing features that appeal to this rapidly growing demographic?



Emily Runyon

I was fortunate to attend the LeadingAge PA Fellows in Leadership graduation ceremony in Allentown, PA. I came away with some serious leadership envy. It was obvious that during this year-long program, the group had become extremely tight knit and the Fellows had grown very comfortable around one another. You could tell they really appreciated being able to bounce ideas off their new network of peers and having very supportive and approachable leaders within each group.

At one point, there was an exercise where people went around the room and commented on each other’s strengths. They gave thoughtful and sincere answers and you could tell that their words were from the heart.

The sentiments shared at the larger meeting were echoed by two people I spoke with in more depth: Diane Burfeindt, Vice President of Population Health at Presbyterian Senior Living, a coach, and Brian Mailliard, CFO at St. Paul’s Senior Living Community, a Fellow. Both were part of the same small group.

As we discussed the year-long journey, the two remembered back to the first day. At first, Brian was hesitant to try the program. He didn’t know what to expect. “My hesitation went away – day one – minutes into the first session,” he said. “The program changed my whole approach to leadership.”

During the year the group was together, Diane found it interesting that many participants underwent changes and growth in their responsibilities and titles. “Change can be scary, even if it’s a positive thing,” she said.  “Luckily, they had the group to fall back on. Typically, you don’t have people to talk to about work. This was a safe place where people could talk about their challenges.”

Brian seconded that thought. “Before when I would have a difficult situation or tough conversation at work, I felt like I was out on an island — who could I ever talk to that had that experience? Now that we’ve gone through this program, we can pick up the phone and call someone.”

The group plans to keep on being that support system for one another through phone calls and meetings. “One of the most important parts of the leadership academy is what happens after it’s over,” Diane said.

Both Diane and Brian agreed that leadership isn’t a destination, it’s a lifelong journey.

“It continues to remind me every year – leadership is a process and you’re never done,” Diane said. “It’s growth and a part of life – it’s not separate from your personal life. If you think you know it all as a person, then you sort of stagnate. It’s nice to be with the Fellows and the class and get out of your daily routine and remind yourself of that.”

“This program is only one tool,” Brian added. “The biggest realization is that you’ve got to always be working at leadership. Whether it’s reading or conferences or signing up for specific programs — if you don’t make it an intentional part of your career then you’re going to get caught up in the day to day and put it off.”

One of the most fascinating components of the program was the final project each Fellow had to present. Brian completed his on a program called Share Care, an innovative housing solution for low-income seniors. Stay tuned for more details in a guest post from Brian.



Emily Runyon


People bring all kinds of stuff to the gym when they work out — water bottles, headphones, yoga mats.

The boxers at the Rock Steady Boxing class for those with Parkinson’s are notable for what they don’t bring: their canes. Many of them have made such great progress, they can walk into the gym without them.

Since April is Parkinson’s Awareness Month, I talked to Tammy Smith, a volunteer and co-founder of the Rock Steady Harrisburg Boxing program, held at the West Shore Academy of Martial Arts (WSAMA), right around the corner from the Varsity offices. The program is one of 775 affiliates in the national Rock Steady program, a revolutionary boxing training designed especially for people with Parkinson’s.

The program is driven by a team of volunteers and certified Rock Steady Boxing coaches, including the owner of WSAMA, who are passionate about helping to improve the lives of those living with Parkinson’s disease.

The coaches are proud that many boxers in the early stages of Parkinson’s have improved their balance so much through the program that they are able to walk in without the use of a cane. And, unlike many people who sign up for a gym membership and quit a few weeks later, these boxers have nearly perfect attendance. “They don’t miss a class unless they have a serious reason,” said Smith. “They are literally fighting for their lives.”

She goes on to describe the Rock Steady training. “Boxers do a lot of vocal exercises — the coach has them yell out — which combats the issue of their voices tending to get slow and soft. They do a lot of floor exercises, and they also practice falling. If you have Parkinson’s, you have to be comfortable going to the floor because of balance issues. Our coaches teach them how to fall properly and how to get off the floor if they’ve fallen, as well as how to get off a chair — things that you and I may take for granted.”

The program opened its doors in October 2018, and the results have been phenomenal. “We’ve had a tremendous response,” Smith said. In a few short months, boxers’ accomplishments have included decreasing some of their medications, reducing tremors — especially during certain times of the day — and improving coordination and reaction time. “One boxer was thrilled that he can now put his foot on a chair and tie his shoe,” Smith said.

Then, there are the emotional wins. “The coaches are reporting that people who are close to the boxers have noticed a lot of changes in mood and attitude,” said Smith. “They are no longer embarrassed about their symptoms, which used to make them withdraw. In the class they all have similar symptoms, so they can really be themselves and laugh and let loose. Rock Steady brings them together, motivates them and helps with energy and mobility — it’s a win-win,” she said.

“There’s no cure for Parkinson’s,” she went on. “Rock Steady Boxing can improve quality of life and, in some cases, delay the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. I think people are starting to understand that if you want to fight back against it, this is what you have to do.”

The reason Smith pursued Rock Steady Boxing was her father, who has had Parkinson’s disease for over two decades. “For years, we struggled with any sort of resources for Parkinson’s disease in the area,” Smith said. “It was a huge goal of mine to get Rock Steady Boxing up and going, so I traveled to Indianapolis to become a certified coach and bring home the Rock Steady Harrisburg affiliation.”

Chief and Master Instructor Vince Vergara of the West Shore Academy of Martial Arts and one of his coaches, Allyson Halbach, heard through the grapevine that Smith was already certified and held an affiliation and was looking to sponsor a program for her business— so, the two parties came together.

They began with classes for people in the early stages of Parkinson’s and now have opened classes for people with more advanced symptoms. The program is growing rapidly, partly from physician referrals. Class fees are low and go right back into the program. “Anyone that is thinking about taking a class is welcome to come and observe,” Smith said.

Smith is also involved with the Parkinson’s Foundation, speaks about the benefits of Rock Steady and organizes Parkinson’s-related resources and fundraising events in the area, one of which is the 2nd Annual Knockout PD 5K. She invites everyone to come out to the event on Saturday, April 13, at Masonic Village in Elizabethtown. Learn more about the race here.



Emily Runyon

Now that the holidays are over, my resolution to spend less money on gifts next year is in full swing. It’s not surprising that  a recent survey tells us that shoppers spent more than $850 million — a 5.1 percent increase in holiday spending from 2017. One of the most-talked-about best sellers was the smart speaker: For the third straight year, Amazon’s best-selling product was the affordable Echo Dot. Interestingly, several commercials depicted Boomer and senior parents using smart speakers to connect with their children and grandchildren — like this spot about a grandmother connecting with her family, and this one, featuring a daughter interacting with her dad as she cooks.

When it came time to buy my Boomer mom a gift, I fell for the marketing hype myself. I know Mom loves listening to music in the kitchen, and seeing her old-school boom box made me think it was time for an upgrade. I got her the Amazon Echo Dot, influenced by the commercials that made using it seem so easy. Although my mother is quite averse to technology, I had a hunch she’d be comfortable with the Dot. I was right. Once I got her set up with it, she loved it. “It’s so easy to use — you just talk to it!” Mom said.

I caught up with Mom again after the holidays to see if her experience was still going well and asked her how she was using the gift. “Right now, just for music,” she said. (Mom likes to listen to country songs while she’s cooking.) “But sometimes I ask Alexa what the weather is.”

“What do you like best about the Dot?” I asked. “The ease of using it,” my mom said. “It’s hands-free. I can change volume, change music, easily. I don’t have to yell. I just talk, and she listens.”

One of my co-workers’ parents also got a smart speaker system for Christmas. Her report? Her parents like having it play music but don’t see it playing a large role in their lives. “My dad may ask about the weather, but he still goes into the kitchen to watch the weather on TV,” my co-worker said. “He’s not going to say ‘turn on the lights.’ He’s going to flip a switch.”

My mom is a little more adventurous. Although she’s sticking to music and weather for now, she said that she’s interested in using the Echo Dot for other home tasks as well. “If I had the hook up, I would use it to work lighting for more efficiency,” she told me. “I’d also like to use it to put the garage door up and down.”

I’m glad that my mom’s getting comfortable with voice assistance now — in case she needs more help later to make her life easier and safer, whether that means turning on lights in the middle of the night or saying, “Call 911” to summon help in an emergency.

According to this recent survey of industry leaders, the trend to voice will move forward faster than we can imagine. If, in turn, that can give older adults more of a voice in their lives, I think that’s a good thing.




Emily Runyon

Once in awhile at Varsity, we view current entertainment through the filter of aging services marketing. This past weekend, I binged out on “The Kominsky Method,” a trending Netflix series starring Michael Douglas as Sandy Kominsky, a former Hollywood A-lister turned acting coach, and Alan Arkin as Sandy’s longtime agent and best friend Norman Newlander. Produced by sitcom sultan Chuck Lorre (“Two and a Half Men”), the show also features a star-studded cast, including regulars Danny DeVito, Nancy Travis and Lisa Edelstein, with guest appearances by Jay Leno, Ann-Margret and Patti Labelle.

The eight episodes I watched dealt with death, drug addiction, ageism and cancer and still managed to be laugh-out-loud funny — at least I thought so.

One reviewer wasn’t so enamored of the show. He thought the jokes were tired and that there was too much focus on peeing habits. Sandy’s need for frequent urination, including watering the hedge in his date’s yard, dominates more than one episode.

The reviewer makes a valid point, although for me, the humor somehow works. The portrait of Michael Douglas’ character with an enlarged prostate is a refreshing contrast to the usual list of invincible aging male stars jumping from planes in action movies.

One mystery the show did clear up for me is why some men I know frequently pee in hedges and bushes, as well as behind large trucks in parking lots. I always thought it was a macho need to “mark your territory,” but it turns out that it’s just a male health condition that worsens with age.

During the hedge scene, I picked up the phone and called my Uncle Tony (who has been dealing with a slow-growing prostate cancer) and asked him to tune in and give his opinion. He binged through all eight episodes. My uncle’s favorite part? Sandy and his lack of steady flow had him laughing out loud.

Beyond the humor, Uncle Tony explained, it was great to see an important subject being given prominent attention. In a lighthearted way, the show drives home the point that even famous people aren’t immune to this health issue, which impacts 50 percent of men over 50 and 90 percent of men over 80 and can be associated with prostate cancer. Every time the great Sandy Kominsky makes another trip to the bathroom, it underscores the need for diagnosis and treatment of prostate conditions. Sandy’s reluctant visit to his urologist is funny, of course (imagine a white-coated Danny DeVito wielding the power of a rubber glove), but a more serious message clearly comes through: If you’re having symptoms, get checked.

Other serious themes are also cloaked in humor, including the ever-prevalent issue of ageism. One example: Norman’s assistant comments that it’s great for him to be back at his job running a talent agency after his wife’s death, comparing him to her grandpa, who keeps his mind active by doing the daily crossword.

In spite of the stereotypical perceptions of those around them, the older characters forge ahead as contributing, working members of society — even if they’re sometimes reduced from their former glory. (For instance, Elliott Gould, in a hilarious guest turn as an erstwhile movie icon, accepts a cheesy commercial hawking reverse mortgages.)

Whether you find the humor funny or not, “The Kominsky Method” definitely takes on some important issues. Is a season two renewal in its future? Stay tuned! In the meantime, you can learn more about prostate cancer detection and treatment by visiting the Prostate Cancer Foundation.

Emily Runyon

“The Cool Kids,” a new sitcom on FOX, stars an ensemble cast of characters residing at Shady Meadows Retirement Community. The official, published premise of the show is “Three guy friends in a retirement community are the top dogs until they’re blown out of the water by the newest member of the community, a female rebel who’s ready to challenge their place — it’s high school with 70 somethings.” As an aging services marketer, this show was sure to catch my eye. Recently, I sat down and binged the first several episodes, looking at it from not just an entertainment perspective, but also in light of my experiences with senior living.

The show’s cast includes some well-known comedic actors — David Alan Grier, Martin Mull, Leslie Jordan and Vicki Lawrence. Even the team members of the community are well-cast, including Artemis Pebdani as Allison, the community’s executive director, and Charlie Day as Chet, one of the maintenance technicians. This gave me high hopes for a funny, insightful show about life in a senior living community. After watching the first three episodes, I’m staying positive but am also mildly perturbed.

Let’s start with the positives. The program does have some pretty funny moments, showing just how unique and interesting life at a community can be. It does a good job of capturing some of the internal politics that occur when people live in such close proximity. Sure, there are some of the expected jokes, but if you look beyond the low-hanging fruit of easy laughs, the show has the potential to poke some good-hearted fun at the world of aging services. Unfortunately, the reliance on the easy laughs is where the writing takes a nosedive.

The first few episodes contain nearly every “old person” comedy trope in the books, up to and including the urn of a deceased friend falling, breaking and spreading ashes everywhere. There are many references to senior sexuality, making the male characters seem like lechers. Meanwhile, when Margaret shows signs of sexuality, she’s immediately shut down because of being “too old.” Of course, there are jokes about medications, aging in general and life in the community. I was especially disappointed in the portrayal of the community’s management as being iron-fisted and deaf to the needs of the residents. This isn’t the kind of portrayal aging services professionals need.

In the end, the show has some real potential, but the writing and direction of the early episodes rely too heavily on expected comedy. The characters aren’t shown as well-rounded people; rather, they’re given singular motivations that vary only a little with each episode. I could easily see how this show could become something special and unique, like “The Office” was for corporate America or “Parks & Recreation” was for public servants. But until the writers, directors and producers take a fresh look at aging, the show is going to be doomed for its use of age-old gags that haven’t aged well at all.

Emily Runyon

It’s summertime. You’re visiting your favorite community pool or, perhaps, a waterpark. You choose to take your family to these places because they have trained, supervised lifeguards. Sure, sometimes they are a little young, but it’s an extra layer of safety. As you dip your toe into the water, you look up to the lifeguard’s tower where you find a surprise waiting for you: In the chair, where you would normally find a tanned and lean teen or 20-something sits a woman who could easily be your own mother. She’s obviously in good shape and is keeping an eye on the water, ignoring the shocked look that you surely have on your face.

Water recreation centers around the country are embracing the “grey wave” that has come into their labor force.

A recent article from the Washington Post provides some excellent insight on this topic, but the facts it cites shouldn’t be a surprise. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, fewer teenagers are seeking employment, with only 35 percent of people 16 to 19 holding down a job. That’s down from 52 percent only 20 years ago. The jobs that have been traditionally held by teens are now being subsumed by adult workers — whether they are just trying to make ends meet or are looking for a little extra cash on the side.

If you look at the challenge from the employer side, hiring older adults to fill these positions makes good business sense. They are generally more reliable. They usually have their own transportation. They can work through a whole summer season and don’t need to quit early to return to school. Swimming is also a popular exercise method for older adults, as it is easier on the joints. This means that many older adults are capable swimmers, making them prime candidates for lifeguarding roles. This change from teens to seniors in water safety roles serves as an interesting example of how the labor market is adapting.

Today, teens and 20-somethings are being pulled in many different directions. Where once they were expected to hold down a job, now schools and recruiters are looking for a more diverse extracurricular portfolio. Sure, having a part-time job is important, but don’t forget to play at least one (if not more) sports, participate in student government, engage in some kind of educational activity (such as tutoring younger students) and more. All of these extra activities add up, leaving the student workforce both harder to engage and harder to rely on during peak times.

This is where the older adult workforce is really finding a niche. As younger workers choose to concentrate on schooling or career-building, entry-level service jobs are getting tougher to fill. Older workers are prime candidates for these positions — whether they are unskilled and trying to make it through retirement or are well-off and looking for something different to do after spending 30 years in a fast-paced career. Lifeguarding is just one avenue that Boomers and seniors are taking. At Varsity, we believe that other industries are going to start experiencing a wave of older workers. If they choose to embrace it, it could be great for business. Should they choose to ignore it, they might be drowning in their own shortsightedness.

Emily Runyon

Let’s face it: Instagram is generally considered a young person’s game. Certainly, the demographics of the platform would agree, as only 15 percent of all Instagram users are over the age of 45. If one looks at users 55+, that number plummets to a measly 6 percent. There was a time when Facebook had similar user statistics, but today, it is a platform embraced by all ages. Just as Facebook “matured” by adding older users to its base, so, too, is Instagram.

On the vanguard of this maturation are fashionistas, such as Lyn Slater. She operates an Instagram account named “Accidental Icon,” where she shares her latest fashion finds. Today, she has more than 500,000 followers who look to her for inspiration, in both fashion and aging. Her photos are what you would expect from a trendy social media star, but with a twist. Slater embraces her grey hair, making it a key part of her style. She doesn’t shy away from her age; rather, she welcomes it. And she’s not alone.

There is an increasing trend, both on Instagram and other platforms, of women who have stopped trying to fight aging and have learned to love it. Iris Apfel serves as another great example of this movement. While she may be nearing her 100th birthday, her fashion choices belie her age. Apfel spent her life in the fashion industry and sees no reason to tone down her avant-garde personal style. With her signature glasses, round and large on her face, she continues to drive fashion forward as she shows others that age isn’t a factor in her happiness.

The examples that Slater and Apfel are setting aren’t just being viewed and applauded by the fashion scene. Women are being inspired by their posts and taking action to make themselves feel better. If you search #AccidentalIcon on Instagram, you’ll find dozens of pictures of regular, everyday women who are trying out new fashion choices, changing up their hair styles and reimagining who they are. They aren’t conforming to the age-based stereotypes that society is imposing on them; instead, they are making choices that make them feel good and reflect their personal values, interests and beliefs.

As a marketing and branding agency that specializes in working with older adults, we see huge potential in movements like this one. Communities all over the country want to show that they are “active and vibrant.” Slater and Apfel are the epitome of this idea, but women like this exist in every community. We bet that you can think of at least one woman in your community right off the top of your head who is an “accidental icon.” Don’t just try to use your #AccidentalIcons for marketing; raise them up as proud members of a greater community that is actively changing the way the world looks at age and beauty. Their success, fulfillment and happiness will do more to market your community than any advertisement will.


Emily Runyon

Two weeks ago, on a whim, I wrote an article discussing how the reboot of the show “Roseanne” has been addressing issues related to aging. Since writing that article, another episode has debuted that touched on an issue that many Baby Boomers are struggling with — aging parents. Specifically, we’ll be reviewing season 10, episode 6, entitled “No Country for Old Women.”

In the show, Roseanne and her sister, Jackie, are confronted with how best to assist their aging mother, Beverly. Neither daughter wants to take full responsibility for her, as they are both leading complicated lives that leave little time for caring for an aging parent. It also doesn’t help that Beverly has a challenging personal outlook and worldview. Eventually, the sisters decide on “joint custody,” with the mother alternating where she lives every week. As one would suspect, Beverly isn’t very happy with this situation. After Jackie catches her mid-coitus with an older gentleman in Jackie’s apartment, Beverly half-heartedly threatens suicide. This moment helps Jackie to see the challenges her mother faces and how the whole situation makes her feel unwanted. Jackie concedes, and Beverly takes up residence with her.

In less than a half hour of television, this episode struck at the heart of a growing crisis in American families. As people live longer, their retirement funds are drying up, and their need for extended medical care grows. Families once took care of aging relatives at home, but that was usually for just a few years. Now, an aging parent might live for a decade or more, requiring additional care that children and grandchildren just aren’t able to render. Of course, the children don’t want to feel guilty by placing their parent in a community that the parent doesn’t want to go to. It’s a rock and a hard place, for sure.

In 2016, The Atlantic published an article called, “What Aging Parents Want From Their Kids.” In the piece, several families are interviewed about how they are handling aging, from both the children’s and parents’ point of view. It’s fascinating how the roles have reversed, with parents feeling the stress of being checked up on and feeling as though their life is under constant scrutiny. This can lead to parents trying to hide age-related health issues, such as memory lapses and difficulty with daily activities. On the other side of the coin, adult children are often afraid of their parents getting hurt, further encouraging their protective behavior. Welcome to the new normal for many families.

“Roseanne” adroitly manages to take a serious topic and find the humor in it. Yes, Beverly is a prickly individual that is hard to like, but she’s still a human being with feelings that can be hurt. Just because she’s aging doesn’t mean that she is bereft of value. Jackie and Roseanne are forced to confront their own behavior and how it impacts someone they love.

This issue is becoming all too common in our space. As caregivers to the aging, we must also care for a resident’s family, who can be just as scared as a new resident. The services that communities provide are felt well beyond the resident, and our ability to put the family at ease is often even more important than the direct care a resident might get.


Emily Runyon

On March 27, 2018, ABC aired the first episode of “Roseanne”’s 10th season. To say there was an appetite for the relaunch of this program is an understatement; more than 18 million people tuned in to watch the show, which was renewed for an 11th season within three days of the airing. Sure, nostalgia is driving interest in the production, but the stories being told are resonating with viewers, especially in the 18 to 49 demographic.

You might be wondering why we’re discussing a television show that is popular with an age group that doesn’t qualify as the “mature market.” It’s certainly a pertinent question! To answer that query, we point to season 10, episode 3, entitled “Roseanne Gets the Chair.” While every episode of the season touches on aging issues, this one brings them to the forefront.

As Roseanne has aged, her knees have gotten bad. Throughout the season, she quips about her joint pain and the challenges she faces getting around as she ages. To help this situation, Roseanne’s caring husband, Dan, installs a chair lift in their home stairwell to help Roseanne with her mobility issues. Dan says he got the lift from a neighbor who passed away, implying that someone much older than Roseanne up to this point used it. Naturally, Roseanne is resistant to using the lift because, in her words, “It makes me feel old.” At one point in the show, Roseanne gives in to using the lift, taking a seat and riding it up the stairs. As she does so, her granddaughter bounds up and down the steps, running past her, making her feel even more feeble and vulnerable. This interaction illustrates a point that is hitting close to home for that 18 to 49 audience — namely, the adult children that are now looking to care for their parents.

In real life, Roseanne is 65 years old, and it can be presumed that her character is roughly the same age. In the show, she and Dan struggle with keeping track of their prescriptions and dealing with age-related pain, as well as the challenges of living with their children and grandchildren all under one roof. Let’s face it: This is a common story in America today, which may be why the show has struck a cord.

People 18 to 49 are young enough to remember when “Roseanne” first aired, with a young, vibrant cast dealing with blue-collar issues. Now, that cast has aged alongside them and is facing the same life stage challenges as their families are. Adult children are watching as their parents endure joint replacements, manage medications and fight to stay active, even as their bodies begin to decline. This is especially apparent within blue-collar families, who may not be able to afford a retirement community and choose to stay in their own homes, depending on family care and resourcefulness.

In its own way, “Roseanne” is generating discussion and insight on the aging process in a manner that no other show is doing today. Rather than exaggerating the issues of aging for sport, the show reacts to them in a real way. This reaction is something that many adult children are facing as they watch their own parents age into their mid- to late-60s and early 70s. The desire for this group to remain active is routinely challenged by health, leading to adult children taking on caregiver roles — whether they are equipped or not.

Through our work with aging services providers, we know these challenges all too well. Previously in this blog, we’ve discussed the lack of middle class senior living options. Instead, our industry is bookended with affordable housing and luxury brands, leaving the middle class with few places to turn. We must ask ourselves: Where will the Roseanne’s of the world live in the next 10 years, and is our industry ready for those opportunities?

In the meantime, we will continue to tune in to “Roseanne” and laugh along with America — even as we look deeper into the aging issues that the show brings to life.

Emily Runyon

At Varsity, we’re always looking for inspiration and ideas on ways we can improve communications and marketing for our clients. Like any industry, we review what thought leaders are doing to help us keep current with trends and innovations, but that strategy can only get you so far. If you’re always working to keep up with the competition, you’re never really taking the lead. This caused us to ask, “What industry is like ours, has a similar sales funnel and encounters the same kinds of challenges?”

The answer was simple, really — post-secondary education.

Today, colleges and universities spend millions of dollars each year trying to attract just the right mix of students to their institutions. They build beautiful campuses, filled with state-of-the-art learning facilities, luxurious amenities and grandiose sports fields, all in an effort to entice potential students to choose them over their competitors. They aren’t just selling the degree; they’re selling the lifestyle. It becomes about self-identity and being part of something bigger than yourself.

The marketing techniques being employed by these schools aren’t entirely dissimilar to those that retirement communities are beginning to use.

Selling someone retirement at a community isn’t about whether you have the right floor plans or enough square footage for their furniture. Today’s retirees are looking for a well-rounded community that provides a variety of engaging activities, high-quality dining options, beautiful living spaces, security and a sense of belonging. Just as students are proud to show off the school they attend, our residents are proud to talk about the community they chose to retire to — and why not? They spent their hard-earned retirement investments to enjoy their lives at a community full of their peers, just as college students do.

As we reviewed marketing materials from post-secondary schools, especially their websites and social media presences, we found similar themes to the messages we need to convey in retirement living.

Schools provide communications targeted at several varying audiences:

  • Current students
  • Potential students
  • Parents
  • Alumni and donors
  • Employees

In the same vein, senior marketing strategies work to reach the same types of groups:

  • Current residents
  • Potential residents
  • Families
  • Community partners
  • Employees

While not all of these groups will directly lead to a sale, interacting with them provides a complete and holistic view of our brand and communities. It shows that we care for all who support our mission.

This revelation has led us to look for inspiration. How do colleges and universities market themselves? How can this guide retirement living marketing? While the target audience is slightly different, the driving forces are the same. By understanding the drivers and emotions at play in that decision process, we can better communicate with our audience, providing them with easy access to the answers they’re looking for. This, ultimately, puts us in a better position to demonstrate that one community is the best place for them compared to others.

While your retirement community may not have a popular mascot, a well-known sports program or scientific research lab, it does have one important thing in common with college: heart. The years spent in retirement are just as important — if not more so — than the years spent in college. They are to be enjoyed and cherished.

That’s the message we try to convey every day at Varsity, and it’s a challenge we love.


Emily Runyon

In an era where the average person feels more connected than ever, the issue of loneliness among seniors is becoming disconcerting. Boomers, Xers and Millennials have adapted to a social world that revolves around mobile technology, yet seniors are becoming increasingly disassociated from their families. So, what’s the root cause of this problem, and how can we address it as aging services professionals?

According to the latest U.S. Census Bureau data, about 28 percent of people aged 65 and older are living alone. As one ages, the chances of living alone increase. This makes sense, as spouses pass away and children move out. Of course, living alone doesn’t immediately make someone lonely, but we can all agree that it’s a step in the direction of loneliness.

Becoming a single-person household can start a chain reaction that leads to larger, wide-ranging problems. Studies have shown that older adults that feel lonely or isolated will begin displaying behaviors that make them increasingly more difficult to interact with in social situations, thus pushing friends and relatives even further away. This, of course, only makes the person feel more lonely, creating a vicious psychological cycle.

The negative implications of a lonely lifestyle are numerous. Isolated and lonely seniors have a 59 percent greater risk of mental and physical decline and show a 45 percent mortality increase. Of those living alone, one in seven is suffering from some kind of dementia, which can go undetected if a person isn’t engaging in regular social interactions.

Family dynamics have also changed. At one time, a child might have gone to visit his or her parents once or twice a month. Now, the number of in-person visits is dwindling, being replaced by less-frequent phone calls or perhaps the use of Skype and FaceTime. These technological visits don’t have the same effect for seniors that in-person interaction does.

One statistic of special note for aging services providers comes from data reported by AARP: Forty-five percent of people aged 45 or older who have lived in their current residence less than one year reported feeling lonely. Let that sink in for a minute!

Even in our vibrant, active communities — filled with intelligent and engaged residents and staff — new residents can feel especially lonely and isolated. It can become difficult for them to make new friends, navigate the social structure of your community and become involved in a meaningful way. Ensuring that each new resident is paired with a neighbor to show them the ropes when he or she moves in is vitally important.

The social workers at aging services communities are on the frontlines of the battle against loneliness, but each associate at your community should be on the lookout for signs of self-seclusion or withdrawal. Protecting residents, both physically and mentally, is an important part of each team member’s job.


Emily Runyon

DRAGON: Divorced, Rich, Aged 65+, Overseas traveler, Networker

If you were to ask an aging services provider what his or her ideal potential resident looks like, you’d find many different definitions. In most cases, leads are qualified based upon income-producing assets, home value and, perhaps, some additional savings and/or investments. These people are ideal leads because they meet all of the financial criteria for moving into a community.

For this reason, they are prized candidates, often being competed over by several different aging services organizations. From the point of view of prospective residents, they are evaluating the amenities and floor plans that communities offer. But, at the end of the day, the biggest determining factor for choosing a community is culture. This is where understanding the DRAGON can help you convert those high-quality leads into residents.

The idea of the DRAGON coalesced around 2014, as marketers began to identify trends in the Baby Boomer demographic. For retirement communities, DRAGONS are ideals candidates because of their demographic profiles. They are wealthy, usually working with two retirement incomes. Being aged 65+, they meet the age requirements for community entry. As frequent travelers, they like the maintenance-free lifestyle that many campuses offer and, for the same reason, are less reliant year-round on on-campus amenities, such as restaurants, wellness centers and programming. Last, as natural networkers, they become excellent word-of-mouth marketers for your organization and can sing your praises to their friends and family, who may also fit the DRAGON demographic.

Identifying DRAGONs, and understanding why they are especially important leads for retirement communities, is just the start. How do you win them over and make them choose your community over all of the other options? The answer is simple — culture. As noted earlier, individuals make their retirement choices based heavily on the culture and feel of a community. Making your community physically appealing to DRAGONs is the first step. The harder step is getting the culture right. Let’s put ourselves in their shoes and look at what might be appealing to DRAGONs.

First, they may look to more open and accepting cultures, especially in light of being divorced. Obviously, the community needs to be well-appointed and include many options and amenities. These work best in a community atmosphere where DRAGONs can spend time with friends and neighbors, where their natural networking talent shines. As travelers, they desire easy access to transportation, whether that is a train station or airport (but probably both!). Obviously, issues like location and access to transportation aren’t easily addressed by providers. In those cases, organizations should be ready to demonstrate what kind of accommodations they can make to ensure DRAGON needs are met, or alternatives offered that may better suit their lifestyle.

Take a few moments to put yourself in the shoes of a DRAGON and look at your community through his or her eyes. By doing so, you might be able to adjust your sales & marketing strategies, even if only slightly, to make a big difference in your appeal.

Emily Runyon

Many of us have fond memories of going to summer camp as children. Hiking through mountains, boating on a lake, shooting archery and learning crafts are all a part of the common memories that many share. But, as we age, we leave those summer days behind, letting them create a bygone era in our mind, when summers were carefree and fun — fortunately, though, that no longer needs to be the case.

Take, for instance, Camp Meraki. Marketed as a retirement camp for seniors, the program runs in the early fall at John Knox Ranch, in Wimberley, Texas. During the hot summer months, the camp runs activities for children, but as the cooler fall temperatures approach, it welcomes a different crowd of those 60+. The activities, however, are largely the same, including canoeing, archery, crafts, stargazing, sing-alongs and more! Oh, and don’t forget the one activity you won’t find at a kids camp — happy hour! The camp runs for three days and two nights, letting campers relive their childhood memories in a fun and safe environment.

Now we’re sure you’re thinking something along the lines of, “That’s all well and good, but my community isn’t in Texas, so this doesn’t really apply to me.” Au contraire! This is an opportunity for your community to do something new and intriguing.

First, you could work with your life enrichment/therapeutic recreation staff to create a camp experience right at your community. While it wouldn’t necessarily be as involved as the Camp Meraki, it could make for a unique program that sets you apart from your local competition. Make sure to include all of the important camp activities — s’more making, campfire sings and arts and crafts!

For those who want to take this one step further, how about contacting your local youth camp and consider setting up a senior camp of your own? You could invite not only your residents, but also prospective residents. It would be a great way for them to get to know your community and could easily provide three days of marketing opportunities for your sales staff. Now that’s a quality program that will differentiate you from your competition!

We love the idea of Camp Meraki here at Varsity. It shows that older adults can enjoy activities that are more commonly attributed to youth. It also helps with memory care and brain stimulation by bringing back those thoughts of childhood and reconnecting people with skills they otherwise might have lost. It’s truly a win-win for everyone involved.


Emily Runyon

Nonprofit life plan communities are incredibly focused on their mission and values. These qualities generally start with their board of directors in collaboration with senior leadership. However, the board isn’t at the community every day, working directly with those involved in carrying out the mission. The vision they so eloquently craft during their quarterly meetings may not meet the everyday needs of associates and residents. Getting your board of directors actively engaged in your community can create positive changes that can have a ripple effect throughout the entire organization. But how do you go about it?

We asked the leadership team at Saint John’s On The Lake, Milwaukee’s premier retirement community, how they engage their board of directors, which includes community and faith-based leaders that share a unified vision. Renee E. Anderson, president and CEO, offers some great suggestions!

Says Anderson, “Outside of the seven board of directors meetings per year, board members serve on one committee, which typically includes both leadership and residents. Board members are frequently seen enjoying life on campus — attending lectures, concerts, dining, using the gym and the pool or visiting family, friends or parishioners.”

Anderson’s statement provides some clear insights into how Saint John’s board is more than just a steering committee. Ensuring that your board feels comfortable visiting your community and utilizing its resources alongside residents and associates can have a significant effect. By being actively involved, they become visible members of the greater community, creating personal relationships with those they serve. Naturally, this will lead them to think about the impact their decisions have on those living there day to day.

Also, it should be noted that using board members on committees is critical. Where possible, these committee assignments should be directly related to a director’s personal and professional talents. It makes sense to have accountants on the finance committee and skilled trades professionals working with the facilities team, but don’t pigeonhole your directors so quickly! Give them an opportunity to express interests in the committee work to which they’d like to be assigned. If someone is crunching numbers all day professionally, he or she might be eager to serve on the resident relations committee, as it provides a new and interesting challenge that he or she might not otherwise face.

Keeping the board engaged as business leaders is also important. Luci Klebar, director of sales for Saint John’s On The Lake, provides some insight into how leadership stays apprised of the issues that impact operations.

She says, “The Board meets quarterly and receives a financial update and leadership update. Additionally, a dashboard that identifies KPI on which the organization is working overall is provided. If there are variances to goal, brief reports are provided.”

Klebar highlights another tactic for an engaged board — consistency. By providing a standardized report that includes performance indicators and goals, directors stay focused on the most important items and are able to compare apples to apples between meetings. Optimizing communications in this way will also make for more efficient and productive meetings.

Every board of directors is different, and what engages one board might not be suitable for another. Knowing what individual passions have brought your board members to the team will provide you with critical insights into how they can become an integral part of the organization’s leadership. New board members look to those already serving, including senior management, to find their role. In short, give them something to do that they both enjoy and find meaning in, and your board will be better for it!