Boomers Marketing Archives – Varsity Branding

Category: Boomers Marketing

“Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.” Those are the words of John Wanamaker (1838–1922), a very successful United States merchant, religious leader and political figure, considered by some to be a pioneer in marketing.

Anyone who is a marketer for senior living communities can relate to that statement. But there is a way to know where your marketing dollars are really going, and it’s by harnessing your data using predictive analytics.

That concept was the focus of a 2021 LeadingAge Conference session, “Predictive Analytics: Connecting Past Performance to Future Success,” a joint presentation by Varsity, its sister agency WildFig Data and Ingleside Senior Living.

“Retirement communities in general are data rich and insight poor,” says John Bassounas, Partner at Varsity. “Sometimes when it comes to analytics and data, people get overwhelmed. Really, at the end of the day our job is to simplify that process and deliver insights that can help communities make better decisions.”

During these challenging times, harnessing your data is especially important. “As an outgrowth of COVID-19,” John says, “everyone is trying to figure out the role of digital — how organizations can establish a competitive advantage. Data is the way to do that.”

A Progressive Partner

Varsity and WildFig have been fortunate to partner with Ingleside, a forward-thinking, multi-site, nonprofit senior living organization located in the Washington, D.C., area. “Data analysis was a leadership initiative at Ingleside,” says John. “It started at the top, and leadership identified data analytics as a key priority for their organization. In doing so, they partnered with us, and we became an extension of their team.”

“This is a visionary client,” agrees Derek Dunham, Vice President Client Services at Varsity. “They have established team members focused on the digital experience in analytics — they see the value in it. They have been an early adopter of data mining and analytics.”

Here are some key takeaways from the LeadingAge presentation based on our work with Ingleside:

1.  Consider all of the digital elements as an ecosystem, not siloed tactics.

“One of the goals here is to make sure that we’re not just looking at isolated tactics. We need to assess the impact of the entire digital ecosystem of paid, owned and earned media,” says Derek.

“From a marketing perspective, understanding the relationship between the various tactics and strategies to the overall program is incredibly valuable, because we want to optimize the plan for the best results.”

“For Ingleside, an important part of the ecosystem is a fresh website that is newly programmed using all the modern tools. Technology is always changing. With a new website, we don’t have to dumb down any of the analytics because the site can plug into analytics and pull data easily.

2. Embrace the process — Each organization is at a different stage with their analytics and modernization journey.

“It’s important for any organization to have the mindset that this is a process,” says Derek. “It’s not going to be a one-off project; it’s a culture. It’s an ongoing initiative that needs to be fed over time. I would say, assess what you have and get going. Taking the first step is important as this process is never ‘done’ — there are always opportunities to refine, test and learn.”

“Some organizations might think, ‘We don’t have all the data we need.’ Others may think, ‘We have too much data.’ Don’t let a lack of data stand in the way of proceeding with initiatives,” John says. “The first thing you need to ask is, ‘What is the question that you want to answer, and how can data make that happen?’”

3. Start with the big questions — Others will emerge.

“Starting with the big questions means, don’t get mired down in the details,” Derek says. “First think about what are the big questions you want to have answered. A question might seem too big initially, but you’ll be able to break it down into smaller questions and put together a manageable process.”

As an example, here are some of the questions that Ingleside wanted to answer:

  • How do we reach and maintain 95% occupancy?
  • How can we use data to make informed decisions?
  • How can we predict future outcomes?
  • Should the website be redesigned and merged under one URL?

4. Think not just about outcomes, but about implementation, and how to create a dynamic feedback loop.

“It’s an iterative process, and you’re constantly going to be refining it,” says Derek. “You want to look at the outcomes at a point in time. With this process, you are able to have confidence that you can pull your data at any point in time and get answers.”

Once the loop is established, John says, “We can either look backward at what has happened, or we can look forward to help inform what we’d like to have happen or predict outcomes.”

5. Customize the sales experience through predictive modeling.

“The overall goal of data analytics is to be able to understand the data to provide prospects with a customized experience — making the entire process from a marketing and sales perspective more efficient,” Derek says.

“For organizations like Ingleside, we’re doing that through a predictive modeling tool that does two things — predicts what lead volume will be, and assigns a lead score to every prospect in their database. We’ll be able to map each prospect’s customer journey and know the likelihood of their becoming a depositor at each interaction with the salesperson,” says John. “This map can be generated for every prospect, providing an easily digestible way to monitor the sales process.”

Why is that so important? “We all know that it takes anywhere from 20 to 30 touches for somebody to move in,” says Derek. “The more we can make those touches relevant and purposeful and efficient, the better. Through that process, we also make the salesperson’s time efficient, because they’re dealing with the people who are most predisposed to buying. We’re offering the salesperson better information so they are better able to connect with the right prospects.”

If you’d like the Varsity team to take you through the presentation in more detail, please contact John Bassounas at or Derek Dunham at


During Thursday’s roundtable, retirement communities around the country shared sales and marketing strategies that are working during COVID-19. From virtual events to smart home communications, tech is being tapped frequently to reach and attract residents.

Join the next sales and marketing roundtable on July 23!

Please join our next roundtable discussion on Thursday, July 23, at noon ET. We will have a speaker from Morrison Living sharing tips to create safer environments.

For log-in information, please contact

As more cities opened up, communities met virtually for roundtable #13 to discuss this week’s triumphs and tribulations.

Check out the recap of our discussion below. Please also join us for our next sales & marketing roundtable, coming up this week.


Join the next roundtable on June 25!

You are welcome to join our next roundtable discussion on Thursday, June 25, at 12 p.m. ET.

You don’t have to be a client to join — all are welcome. For call-in information, email

Today, Stacy Hollinger Main, a partner and interior designer at RLPS Architects, is sharing her philosophy and advice on senior living design. RLPS is an award-winning firm located in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, that specializes in architecture and interior design for a variety of industries, including senior living, assisted living and dementia/memory care. Stacy has 28 years of design experience and has spent 21 of those years designing senior living communities at RLPS.

What is your philosophy on senior living design?

First of all, it’s important to understand that it’s not “senior living” design — it’s about good design, period. We take the approach of looking at design from a holistic point of view with a nod to hospitality design, but scaled appropriately for people who are living there.

To appeal to Baby Boomers, designs must be contemporary and reflect the distinctive experiences and lifestyle offered to those moving into a particular community. It’s tailored to people who have the desire to live in housing that’s beautiful and well maintained with a lot of amenities — but designed appropriately for the people who are using it.

Take carpet, for instance. It may look rich, but there are a lot of factors that we take into consideration behind the scenes. The carpet has to be able to handle rolling traffic, such as wheelchairs, scooters and walkers. And it’s not just about the items that assist the residents to keep them ambulatory; it’s also about the staff — whatever they’re pushing and navigating, such as med carts. It’s often a matter of weighing the options with our clients for each particular application. Carpet is typically more homelike and helps with acoustics, but it’s easier to propel rolling traffic over hard surfaces.

What advice would you give senior living communities?

Communities need to stay current and fresh because the competition is high, and trends change constantly. Just as you want to update your own wardrobe, you want to make sure that your floors and walls are all up-to-date.

Our goal is to create timeless communities that speak to the brand and reinforce it across all levels of care. However, it’s easy for communities to get out of date. You don’t want people to be fearful to go to a higher level of care, such as assisted living or memory care, because the spaces look outdated and not as nice as independent living.

That’s why it’s important to include interior design in your master planning. Your community needs to put a refresh of its design into the capital budget. You need to evaluate every aspect of your decor at least every 8–10 years, although you can change things like paint and accessories more often for a refreshed look.

 What are your favorite projects?

In the end, once we’ve had that ribbon-cutting ceremony, and we hear people walking through the rooms, experiencing the design for the first time and talking about it, feeling happy — those are our favorite projects. It’s really about the way the design has improved their lives. And it’s not just about the people who are living there; it’s about staff, too. If we’ve been able to help a staff member do his or her job better and promote health or wellness because of the materials we’ve used, it’s impacting people’s lives for the better.

We do projects across the U.S. They’re all challenging and all unique. We don’t do cookie-cutter projects. We are creating a unique atmosphere for the community while striving to create trust, open communication and a positive end result for our client. Those are the best projects — when a client is asking us to come back to do the next one.

What do you like most about your job?

When you look at a room, when you look at space, it’s more than six sides of a box; it’s the potential for creativity. When we start to fill the box with the interior elements, we look at the floor, walls and ceiling. We think about acoustics and window treatments and lighting and accessories. In the end, it’s all about the people who are using the space. What I like most about my job is seeing people who are enjoying the space as they work and live here.

The goal for design is all about creating an environment to inspire people and transform lives. Our goal at RLPS is to do that in all aspects of our design, not just in senior living.



Many of our clients were asking how other communities were handling the coronavirus crisis, so we gathered virtually at a roundtable to share our challenges and solutions. The response was enthusiastic, so we held roundtable #2 last week. For those who weren’t able to attend, we’re including some nuggets from that conversation below.

We’re gathering for another roundtable this week, and all are invited to attend.

Join the next roundtable on April 9!

We thank everyone for participating, and we invite you to join the next session, Thursday, April 9, at noon ET: Marketing and Sales discussion

You don’t have to be a client to join the conversation — all are welcome. For call-in information, email

Since the coronavirus hit, we have been in contact with clients all over the country who are facing the same challenges. Many of them have asked how other communities are handling this unprecedented event. To help communities come together and share their knowledge, we coordinated a roundtable discussion. Last week, 26 clients from 11 different states met over the phone to discuss their marketing challenges and solutions during the coronavirus crisis. We will hold two more sessions next week. All are invited to attend. (You don’t have to be a client to join.)

Here is a sampling of the insights that were shared:

Join the Next Roundtables on April 6 and 9!

We thank everyone for participating, and we invite you to join the next sessions. 

Monday, April 6: Resident life and resident engagement discussion
Thursday, April 9: Marketing and sales discussion

Both events to be held at noon EDT.

You don’t have to be a client to join the conversation — all are welcome. For call-in information, email

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.



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.

At the recent LeadingAge CA conference, the buzz was around the changes in how mature consumers are using their homes.  Those changes also mean different expectations for their new residences. Here are three design elements your community must have to attract Boomers:

  1. Space that works

More residents are continuing their careers. Therefore, they desire more usable work and office space. It’s no longer enough to provide the corner of a room for computers. These days, prospective residents are looking for more formal office space and built-in furnishings to support their ongoing careers.

  1. Indoor-outdoor living

Common space for socialization is no longer sufficient. Prospective residents are looking for open floor plans and spaces that transition to outdoor areas. so they can entertain groups of friends and relatives.  A place to party in the privacy of their own space is a common request.

  1. A home with a heart

Along with higher-grade finishes, Boomers want open-concept, larger kitchens and kitchen islands. An open layout can replicate what happens in their own homes, where everyone congregates in the kitchen to socialize.

Architects and marketers are sharing notes in an effort to create more pleasing environments for a younger set of prospects. Although the shift toward younger residents is slow at best, the mindset and expectations of prospects — regardless of age — feels younger.



I thought I was just flying into Fort Worth, Texas, for another sales conference. Instead, attending the 2019 Greystone Sales Adventure from May 1 to 3 was a life-changing experience that challenged me to look not only at my role in sales, but my whole approach to aging services.

The first tip-off that this wasn’t sales as usual was the conference theme: “Get Down in Funkytown.” It reflected a collective commitment by these senior living sales professionals to get down and be rebellious as they seek to reach consumers who demand more control of their next phase of life. Oh, and it offered lots of opportunities for the participants to get their funk on.

The next clue was the keynote speaker, Lois Kelly, co-author of  Rebels at Work and co-founder of an organization of the same name. The essence of Kelly’s book and the organization she represents is a call for us to push all layers of the organization — regardless of respective role or place of authority — to take responsibility for driving improvement, change and innovation.

Lois challenged us as sales professionals to assume a leadership role in driving change across our organizations. In thinking about the undertaking Lois tasked us with, I’ll be lending ongoing attention to the following questions in collaboration with our clients:

  1. What are we doing as partners to make the status quo unappealing?
  2. How are we helping our teams become more agile and flexible?
  3. To what degree are we maintaining our curiosity? What did we learn today?
  4. Who did we listen to today, and what was their message to us?
  5. Why does the world need us?

One final takeaway: Lois summed up her message to the group by pushing each of us to change the soul of the place in which we work. The challenge is monumental, but the talented group of sales professionals is serious about transforming the field in an effort to serve those yet to be served.




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

Today, Arielle Shapiro, the owner, operator and lead art consultant at Silver Cat Design, a corporate art consultation and interior décor company in Denver, CO, shares her insights into the importance of art in senior living design.

Rob: What is an art consultant?

Arielle: An art consultant is an art-minded professional who assists in the vision for art selection and other art-related projects. My branch of art consultation is primarily focused on senior living and corporate art selection — I advise where art should be hung, choose the artwork, have it framed and oversee the final installation. I purchase artwork from showrooms and online sources, as well as independent artists. I am a fine artist myself, so sometimes I choose to create a piece for a project.

Rob: Why is art important to a senior living community?

Arielle: Art is an enormously enriching and important element in day-to-day community life, especially when it comes to an environment like senior living. These communities are most often seniors’ forever homes, where the residents spend all of their time. Having a thoughtfully chosen, inspiring collection of art will vastly improve their lives. Art inspires personal connections, sparks conversation, stimulates memory recall and brings overall joy and beauty into communities, benefiting both residents and team members.

Rob: What are some of the design trends you are seeing in senior living communities?

Arielle: Paisley, checkers and “Grandma’s house” decor is a thing of the past. Current-day senior living design is incredibly modern, chic and unique, comparable to a luxury hotel. Interior design for these communities is forward-thinking, revolves around community focal points like the dining and lounge areas and caters to Baby Boomers — those who were on the forefront of technology, abstract art, cultural dining and aging independently without the assistance of younger generations. New senior living is sculpted to fit these active seniors’ lifestyles in many facets, from exercise rooms to hobby shops to pubs with beers on tap. Senior living is shifting as far away from the old “retirement home” aesthetic as possible.

Rob: Do you have any research you can share about the benefits of art for older adults?

Arielle: Absolutely! Evidence-based design proves that art and color play an integral role in brain function, especially for the very young (infants) and elderly, like those who experience cognitive slowdowns or issues like Alzheimer’s disease.

Rob: How can art impact memory-impaired residents?

Arielle: Color theory and evidence-based design prove that certain patterns, colors and images can stimulate a plethora of positive thoughts, emotions and sometimes memories. Cool colors, like soft blues, greens and earth tones, can help a memory-impaired resident to feel calm, while soft pinks and oranges can stimulate happy or energized feelings. An image of a 1955 Jaguar car, for example, could help a resident recall a memory of once seeing that car in his or her neighbor’s driveway. An image of a poppy field in spring may bring a resident a sensation of serenity or joy. Selecting artwork for memory care is a very involved, special and fragile practice that requires an extraordinary level of care and consideration.

Rob: Can you give me a few examples of the types of senior living projects you have worked on recently?

Arielle: My most recent project is a luxury senior living community located in the Tech Center area of Denver, Colorado, called The Carillon at Belleview Station. I selected and placed over 350 pieces of art for this community. Village at Belmar in Lakewood, Colorado, is a project I will be forever proud of: one of my first large communities, where I placed art and accessories and furnished several model units. I also recently installed four incredibly chic model units at Pine Grove Crossing, a senior living community based in Parker, Colorado.

Rob: How can our readers find out more about Silver Cat Design?

Arielle:  I would encourage them to visit the Silver Cat Design website or engage with me on LinkedIn.


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.




Like many Americans, I took time out of my schedule to watch the recent hearings on Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. And I’m sure that many of you are growing as weary as I am with the whole process. It seems that every media outlet has been constantly covering the political theater that has unfolded. To me, it’s felt nearly inescapable. Recently, I came across an interesting news article that relates the current political situation with the work that I do.

According to an article on, there has been a concerted effort by politically motivated groups to target female Baby Boomers, just like me, with Facebook ads that are opposed to the Kavanaugh nomination. In reviewing two days’ worth of new Facebook ads that mention Kavanaugh, nearly 37 percent of those ads were targeted at women over the age of 55. But why target Boomer women?

It has to do with the era in which they came of age — the late 1960s and the early 1970s. This was the time of women’s empowerment, the hippie movement and the Roe v. Wade case. Positive societal changes for women occurred at a rate previously unseen. At the forefront of those changes were young women in their teens and 20s. Now those same Baby Boomer women are becoming part of the debate about women’s rights in our modern age.

The Facebook ads that are targeting these women demonstrate the power of social media marketing. One political organization is spending $110 million on more than 100 different Facebook campaigns. If you are an American woman over the age of 55 who uses Facebook, you’re probably going to see one of these ads. This demographic also happens to be one of the fastest-growing and most-engaged groups on the platform. It’s a perfect storm for politicos, marketers and unknowing Boomer women.

As aging services marketers, what can we learn from this? First, the power of social media to market directly to Baby Boomer women is immense. We know that these women are the ones who will likely make health care and housing decisions in the next two decades. They also control a large amount of personal wealth in the form of homes, retirement accounts and pensions. Woe to the providers who do not keep up with the services and options that this consumer group desires. There is no doubt that they have an unprecedented ability to make or break senior living communities across the country.

Facebook offers a great way to provide targeted marketing to this demographic, but it has to be done in a way that is unobtrusive, intuitive and that provides value. In our daily work, the Varsity team specializes in deploying tactical social media marketing initiatives that reach the same consumers that these political ads are going after — and we only expect that to rise in the coming weeks prior to the mid-term elections. We are eager to see what kind of impact these political ads will have on female Boomer behavior and whether that will reverberate into our marketing efforts on behalf of our clients.

During 2018, we have undertaken an ongoing blog series in which we take a look at the opportunities and challenges faced by the diverse groups of Boomers and seniors being served by today’s aging services providers.

For our first article in the series, we examined a rapidly growing population in the United States — Latino Boomers and seniors.

In this, our second article, we are looking at the challenges faced by LGBT Boomers and seniors as they age in a changing society.

It was early — almost too early, some would say — but I was interested in the topic, so I got up early for the 7:30 a.m. session at the LeadingAge California Annual Conference and Exhibition.

The speaker was from SAGE, an advocacy group for LGBT Boomers and seniors. His presentation was discussing how communities are adapting their policies and culture to become more welcoming to LGBT individuals. The audience was fuller than I expected, with approximately 20 people. They were clutching their coffees and wiping the sleep from their eyes. Such is the bane of the early morning presenter.

After the typical opening remarks, the presenter said something that caught everyone’s attention. “I guarantee you that there are LGBT individuals residing in your communities right now.” You could almost hear the wheels start to turn.

“Do you have two women that live together, who are lifelong friends?” he said. “Did you have two men move into the community at the same time who chose to live in separate apartments? How about Mrs. Jones down at the end of the hall, who was never married?” Then, like a sunrise, it dawned on the participants, including myself: LGBT individuals are at all of our communities. They just choose not to be out because of personal, societal or cultural reasons.

Admit it. As you read this, you probably thought of someone at your community who fits this description. That’s because the presenter was right — these individuals reside at all of our communities. We need to recognize it and, frankly, we need to do a better job of meeting their needs as they age.

According to SAGE, there are currently three million LGBT adults over the age of 50 in the United States. By 2030, that number is expected to grow to seven million. These individuals are twice as likely to be single or living alone, and four times less likely to have children. This is significant because, as we age, our families are often the first people we turn to for care. But, in many cases, LGBT seniors may not have that kind of support. This can lead to social isolation, with more than 60 percent of LGBT adults reporting feeling a lack of companionship, with more than 50 percent feeling isolated from others.

Obviously, there is a huge market for culturally competent aging services providers to provide care to these individuals. The key here is that the provider is truly culturally competent. Thirty-four percent of LGBT older adults fear having to re-closet themselves when seeking senior housing in order to be accepted or to fit into a community. This fear isn’t just in regards to the staff and administration; it also relates to the other residents who form the day-to-day life at the community.

What can you do, today, to become more culturally aware and competent in assisting LGTB Boomers and seniors?

We encourage you to look around your community and ask yourself if it is welcoming to LGBT individuals. Be realistic. Would you residents be accepting of an openly LGBT person? Would your team know how to address him or her respectfully? Could you accommodate his or her needs?

There’s a huge market being created right now for communities that can appropriately care for LGBT individuals. This could be your organization’s chance to get in on the ground floor of this movement. Not only will you be doing the right thing, but it could easily give you a leg up on your competition.

We encourage you to check out SAGE and engage its training program for your team — starting with your executives and working downward to your frontline associates. Becoming SAGE-certified is a great way to show that you’re taking the LGBT Boomer and senior community seriously and that you want to meet its needs.

Diversity has never been more important in senior living than it is right now. The fabric of American culture is changing. What people want from an aging services provider is changing. Providers can either adapt and welcome diversity or shun it and wither on the vine.

What path will your organization choose?



The facts on LGBT aging

We are proud to announce our participation in this year’s LeadingAge PEAK leadership summit, held March 18–21 in Washington, D.C.

The Varsity team has gone all-in this year, hosting a basecamp at zone 5 of the event. The theme of our basecamp is “Telling your story: connecting with tomorrow’s discerning customer.” All of our presentations will cover topics that relate to how aging services providers will need to grow and adapt their messaging in the coming years.

Keynote presentations will include:

  • “Positioning the Mission,” with Varsity President Wayne Langley
  • “Connecting with Consumers,” with Rob Smith, creative director, and Jackie Stone, vice president of sales consulting — both of Varsity
  • A panel discussion, hosted by Derek Dunham, Varsity’s vice president of client relations, where he will interview marketers to get their respective takes on how to get the most of an agency relationship
  • Kevin Purcell, of WildFig, who will demonstrate how data-driven decision-making can change the way you do business

In between these sessions, the Varsity team will be on hand to meet and discuss these topics and more with all of the attendees. We invite you to stop by and say hello!

Following PEAK, we plan to make a selection of our presentations available via videos on our website, so if you can’t attend in-person, be sure to check back to catch the highlights of the event.

If you perform a Google search for articles relating to the positive effects of pet ownership as we age, you’ll be served up just under 3.4 million results. Obviously, we have significant evidence that pet ownership can have an impact on our health and well-being, no matter how old we are. Yet, for a variety of reasons, many aging services communities don’t allow pets of any sort, or place severe restrictions on pet ownership. This made us curious — what’s the impact of not allowing pets on a community’s marketing efforts and occupancy?

During our Google search, we came across an article from titled, “Retiring with Your Pet — Are Pets Allowed in Retirement Communities?” In the article, the author lists several hoops that retiring pet owners may face when trying to move to a community. Restrictions on the size of the pet and its age are fairly common; communities usually prefer smaller pets that are a bit older. Also, most communities require an additional financial deposit. But what really caught our eye was requiring a social screening of pets, including trial periods.

Trial periods and social screenings are a great idea. By having all current residents meet the pet, and having a professional screen the animal, you are creating a policy that should help to weed out potential issues. But what kind of marketing message is this sending? We think it’s both positive and negative.

On the positive side, by having a well-established and written pet policy, you can prevent any anxiety that residents and potential residents may have around animals in the community. Not everyone likes cats, dogs, birds, rodents or lizards. Thus, establishing a clear policy and guidelines helps to keep everyone on the same level. However, there can be a downside to these policies as well.

Discriminating against pet owners could be costing you sales. According to the American Humane Society, the average income of pet owners is higher than non-pet owners — and we all know how important income qualification is for retirement communities! Also noted is that the average length of occupancy for pet owner is more than twice that of non-pet owners. Obviously, those are some good reasons to encourage pet ownership, as it could have a positive effect on your bottom line.

Let’s face the facts: The chances that someone is going to voluntarily give up a beloved family pet to move to your community is pretty slim. If his or her dog is 35 pounds, and you only allow pets up to 25 pounds, that puts the potential resident in a predicament. In fact, the American Humane Society reports that 50 percent of all dogs in the U.S. are over 25 pounds, the common weight restriction found in rental contracts. These kinds of situations generally end one of three ways — with you losing a sale, a couple being forced to give up an animal, or someone fibbing about a pet’s weight. It’s reasonable to say that none of these options are win-win outcomes. With divorce among Boomers increasing, we’ve seen firsthand that someone may leave their spouse, but they will not leave their pet just to move to your community. So, what can you do?

With this problem in mind, the American Humane Society rolled out a campaign aimed at helping pet owners and property managers find some common middle ground. We, at Varsity, especially appreciate the detailed list of common misconceptions about pets and their owners. It’s a great resource for aging services communities — and one that you should check out.

Click here to read the article.

If you haven’t reevaluated your pet policy in awhile, now is a great time to do so — especially with the summer sales season quickly approaching. Contact our team today, and we’ll be happy to share with you some best practices for pets and discuss how adjustments in your policy could help you increase occupancy — and maybe even fill those tough-to-sell floor plans.


“I just don’t like the look of our website,” says the sales & marketing director.

“Our printed material feels dated and isn’t representing us,” remarks the CFO.

“Life in our communities is bright and vibrant. I don’t get that feeling from our communications,” laments a board member.

These are all paraphrased responses that we’ve heard from organizations with which we’ve partnered. They aren’t uncommon sentiments, and it’s these types of opportunities that we work with every day. Having encountered these statements many times, we’ve learned that there is usually one common thread:

The design isn’t dated, but the photography is.

Having a repository of high-quality photos that can be used for your marketing efforts is one of the most overlooked resources in the aging services space. Everything that marketing does is affected by not having a file of up-to-date imagery from which to draw. Additionally, in our field, these images routinely become stale because of resident transitions and health concerns. A great photo can become unusable overnight, leaving you with a gap in the marketing imagery that is crucial for your success.

As a creative director, one of my biggest challenges is working to keep an organization’s marketing efforts fresh and interesting. While graphic design is a key part of each piece of collateral, having a strong library of photography is so very important. I liken it to having to work with a limited palette of colors — it can be an enjoyable challenge, but eventually, everything starts to look the same. Refreshing photographic assets can help shift a brand from stagnant to vibrant once again.

When a situation like this arises, we sometimes look to stock photography to fill in the gaps. Stock photography can provide the high-quality pictures needed to produce marketing products, but it also has the effect of feeling inauthentic, especially if someone sees the same piece of stock photography that is used for your community in another ad. Obviously, we want potential residents to feel engaged with your unique brand platform, making a library of photos that depict your organization appropriately much more valuable. For additional thoughts on how we’ve used stock photography at Varsity, check out our Engage: Boomers article, titled “The Real Way to Reach Baby Boomers.

At a minimum, you should refresh your photography once every two years. If you can afford to do it every year, that’s even better! If you’re thinking about developing new marketing materials, whether they be print or digital, we at Varsity fully recommend that you engage a professional photographer sooner rather than later.

At Varsity, we’ve worked with some outstanding professionals who specialize in working with communities and residents like yours. If you need help finding the right photographer, let us know, and we’d be glad to help!

The senior living field is unique for many reasons. The product being marketed is not only very costly, but also one that brings about dramatic life changes. Retirement communities are not selling “widgets”; they’re selling a way of life, safety, security and more. Thus, the sales funnel for a retirement community is one of the deepest around. One estimate places the number of “touches” a potential resident needs at 20-25 before a sale is completed. That’s certainly more than your average electronic device or impulse buy at the grocery store!
However, there’s one additional catch to that sales funnel: You’re not only working the potential resident through the sales process, but in many cases his/her/their family members. This is especially true if the potential resident needs higher levels of care or is battling a specific or chronic illness. Now not only do you have to help this person see the benefits of moving to your community, but their family as well — and, let’s face it, the family can often be the tougher critic.

It all has to start at one place: a conversation.

Whether that first conversation happens between spouses looking at a community or between a prospect and his or her family, it is one fraught with concern, fear and the best interests of the potential resident in mind. Often, several family members are gathered together to have this conversation, offering advice and input from different angles. That conversation is absolutely critical for the loved ones involved and is usually the starting place for the hunt for a retirement community. The discussion is most likely to happen three times throughout the year — Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter.

Why are those three holidays so important? Simply, they are most likely to gather families together. Also, in many cases, major holidays happen at the house of the patriarch/matriarch of the family. This usually gives children and loved ones insight into how a person is living. Are they taking care of the home as they always have? Is something amiss with his or her daily routine? Are they just ignoring problems rather than fixing them? These are the first telltale signs that a loved one might need more services or assistance than he or she is currently receiving.

As a marketer for such communities, it’s our job to find a way to make your community and services a part of those talks. Optimally, we want the potential resident and family to think of you as their community of choice and to reach out to one of your sales professionals. However, we recognize that you may also have a broader mission. Sure, at the end of the day, you want to make a sale, but it’s also important that you provide quality, honest resources about what senior living services are available to them. You should be happy to assist potential residents with identifying challenges and offering solutions, from addressing financial concerns to whether or not a favorite credenza will fit into the new apartment.

Leading a potential resident and his or her family through the sales funnel is hard work, but it’s also rewarding. In a way, it’s a process many marketing professionals wish they had, because the “customer” can be tracked through each step — from initial contact all the way to move-in day (and beyond). Yes, it’s a challenge, and it’s one that keeps us working to be part of those crucial conversations around the family dinner table.

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.

In the fall of 2017, a new phrase entered the American lexicon — “Swedish Death Cleaning.”

Suddenly, articles about this trend were everywhere, and some senior living communities were talking about the benefits of this extreme decluttering practice. However, the term certainly doesn’t provide a warm and fuzzy feeling, especially in relation to making a move to an aging services community. We wanted to dig into the hype and give a fresh perspective on this new fad.

The idea originates from the Swedish word, “döstädning.” Translated to English, it conveys the idea of slowly and steadily decluttering your life as you age. For the Swedes, this process may begin in a person’s 50s and continue right up until death. Margareta Magnusson, Swedish author and octogenarian, is credited with establishing the English phrase with her book, “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family From a Lifetime of Clutter.”

Magnusson certainly knows something about clutter and moving. She’s reportedly relocated 17 times during her life. Now she wants to share the tips and tricks she has learned over the years to help others who are facing similar challenges. These ideas are especially pertinent to aging services organizations.

For example, I once met a couple that was in the process of downsizing so that they could make the move to a community. The wife was working hard to clear her home of unnecessary items. She began listing furniture, appliances and other major items on internet sales websites. To her dismay, she would get low-ball offers (or no offers at all). She was stunned! In her mind, all of these items had value, but the world was harsh, and she was forced to come to grips with the idea that the family silver that she loved so much wasn’t worth much more than the scrap value of the metal. This left her feeling not only the pinch in her pocketbook, but also in her heart, as she took it very personally. If the items that she loved didn’t have value, what did that say about her?

Deciding which items to retain, which to sell, and which to give to family and friends (or even to throw out) can be difficult. Magnusson understands this and advises that the first items to go be the ones without any sentimental value, such as unworn clothes, never-used gifts and the seemingly endless pile of kitchen utensils and gadgets we all accumulate as we age. In contrast, she recommends keeping personally cherished objects that stir memories, such as photographs, letters and other ephemera.

Confronting one’s own personal decline is hard, but taking the time to sort through your personal belongings can help to refocus your attention on what is important — not just to you, but to your family. For instance, another of Magnusson’s suggestions is the “throwaway box.” In this container, you’d place items that have meaning to you, but not to your friends and family. Included in the box should be a note explaining what the box contains and why it’s okay for it to be discarded after your death.

Obviously, there are some major benefits to engaging in Swedish Death Cleaning, especially for families that have to deal with an estate after the death of a loved one; however, there are important health benefits for the person doing the cleaning as well. Studies have shown, on multiple occasions, that clutter around the home increases stress, decreases productivity and impacts how restful we feel in our downtime. Thus, the process of freeing ourselves from these items can lead to a sense of liberation.

The most important point to remember is that “Swedish Death Cleaning” isn’t a weekend-long project; it’s a way of life for people as they age. Start early, curtail shopping and use available funds for the creation of memories (such as trips and experiences) instead of objects. Before you know it, you’ll be living a clutter-free life, rich with memories. Plus, your family will thank you when the time comes to handle your estate.


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.

Resident entertainment is an important part of life at retirement communities. Whether you label it “life enrichment,” “activities,” “resident programming” or something else, the desired result is often the same — engaged residents. However, what residents find enjoyable and engaging today is very different from 10 years ago. This led us to wonder: What will this field look like in the future? As the Boomer wave crests, and Generation X looks to retirement, how will that impact resident programming?

The youngest Baby Boomers are about 53 years old now. That means that, in fewer than 10 years, they are going to be the target market for retirement marketing professionals. In the same vein, however, this means that the oldest Gen-Xers are also aging into the target market rapidly. Providers are going to have to adapt to these changing tastes and demographics at all levels of the business.

Let’s start with our marketing events. Today, popular events include lunch & learns, perhaps with entertainment. Common choices include doo-wop groups, Motown covers and some big band favorites. However, 10 to 15 years from now, those tastes are going to drastically change; instead of Sinatra, your events may be headed by the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. Are you ready to employ acts that perform disco favorites? Or maybe you’ll have a Pink Floyd experience before showing off your latest model apartments. It’ll be a whole new world.

Once you get the residents in the door, your internal activities team will take over and begin planning events that appeal to this newer generation of residents. Sure, the old favorites will still be there — arboretums, shopping trips and museums — but we can anticipate some of the new trends just by looking at the changing interests of current residents. Home brewing, wine making, model aircraft and drones, motorcycle riding and more have already made their way onto campuses. To these, you might add Lego enthusiasts, skiers and snowboarders and avant-garde film connoisseurs. No longer will you be playing “Singing in the Rain” for the Friday night films; instead, you might be screening old favorites by Otto Preminger, Federico Fellini or Kenneth Anger.

Tastes in food will also begin to morph. Communities all over the country are already implementing international cuisine into their menus for special events. This trend is going to not only grow but explode, as residents want to adventure to new places with their taste buds. Remember, Generation X and their juniors have grown up in a society where eating out is pretty common. This is sure to have impacted their tastes and preferences in dining, making them even more demanding than current residents.

The demands on your physical facility are also going to grow. Communities are already repositioning their offerings, becoming more like resorts every day. The next generation of residents will want spaces and living environments that work for them and meet their unique needs. Remember, Baby Boomers (and, to a lesser extent, Generation X) are the original “Me Generations.” If your campus doesn’t have the amenities, living spaces and extras that potential residents desire, you are going to have an uphill battle.

Certainly, it’s fun to theorize what will happen in the future — man has been doing it for thousands of years. While we still don’t have flying cars, robot lawn mowers or devices that can read our minds, we can see the immediate future — and it includes smart home technology, better wellness facilities and an increased desire for the finer things in life.

What will your campus look like in 10 years? The choice is yours, and you are making it every day.

Since the 1990s, divorce among adults 50+ has doubled, according to a Pew Research poll. People under the age of 50 have seen declining divorce rates, but later-in-life divorce (often termed “grey divorce”) continues to climb. Many researchers are studying why this is occurring, while families and senior living communities are on the frontlines, dealing with the real-life fallout from the ending of marriages.

Before we can understand how to handle grey divorces, we should probably understand the reasons why they are happening. An article on HuffPost, dated September 2015, actually laid out a pros and cons list for those who are “di-curious” and considering a divorce after 50. Reasons cited in favor of divorce included the ability to more easily meet new people (such as when moving into a retirement community), rediscovering of one’s sense of self, new sexual experiences and a freedom to engage in new hobbies that the previous spouse may not have been interested in. Of course, the cons list included issues like loneliness, feeling out of place among married friends and having to handle all of life’s challenges alone after many years of interdependent marriage.

With all of this in mind, we generally see a couple of trends for the reasons that people get divorced after 50. First, as attitudes toward divorce have changed in America, so have the attitudes of those growing older. The stigma of divorce used to be strong; today, it’s become more normalized. As such, older adults now feel less social pressure to remain in relationships that aren’t working for them. Of course, these divorces are enabled by “irreconcilable differences,” the modern catch-all phrase for when couples can’t seem to get along anymore. With children out of the nest, and the daily grind of work coming to an end, many couples find that spending so much time together in retirement is much harder than they had anticipated. They realize just how far they’ve grown apart and start to consider life beyond the marriage. Of course, these kinds of conversations can and do happen after a couple moves into a retirement community, creating a very murky situation, indeed.

Another sad trend that directly affects grey divorce and senior living is financial issues. There are more than a few instances where being divorced leads to a better financial situation for those involved. When nursing expenses become income-based, and one spouse was the breadwinner for years, the couple can be left holding a bill they weren’t prepared to pay. If divorced, those costs could be significantly reduced. What a terrible option this must be — pay to keep your marriage alive or divorce and keep yourself out of the poorhouse!

So, with all of this in mind, what can aging services providers do to help?

First, recognize that just because a couple has been married for 25, 30 or even 40+ years, there may still be issues in that relationship that you can’t control or understand. Everyone loves to say, “Awwww!” when they see an older couple holding hands, but for every couple like that, there is another that struggles to stay together every day. Having your pastoral care staff and social workers prepared to deal with marital issues in retirement is a great first step in providing resources for your residents.

We also advise that directors, admissions and marketing associates have a standardized plan in place for when a couple decides they are going to divorce after moving into the community. How will you handle the finances? Who moves out? What happens to the apartment or cottage? Taking a little time to think about these issues before they arise not only helps your organization better manage the situation, but it makes the transition easier and more respectful for the residents in question.

While the grey divorce trend can be unsettling for community managers, adult children and other residents of a community, it is an issue that is on the rise. We would like to think that every relationship will be able to grow and mature into retirement, but we know that not all will. It behooves aging services professionals to understand and plan for these changes now, before they are presented with them.


3 Reasons Why Seniors are Getting Divorced

Led by Baby Boomers, divorce rates climb for America’s 50+ population

I once worked at a large retirement community. The residents came from all walks of life and had very diverse views of the world. One day, I was talking with a couple just prior to election season. With politics consuming the media, it made sense that the topic became part of the conversation. I knew this couple had fairly liberal views, while many others in the community tended to be conservative. I asked them how they adapted socially during the election.

“Well, we just avoid people that we know will want to talk politics and disagree with us. Many of our neighbors sit and watch Fox News all day. We aren’t going to change their opinions, and they won’t change ours. So, why go through the exercise? It’s just easier to avoid it. Like during meals, we know which tables not to sit at or near,” said the woman.

During my time at that community, it wasn’t uncommon for political officials to make campaign stops on the campus. With more than 1,000 residents and staff, it was an excellent location for getting your name out there. Plus, we all know that older Americans are more likely to vote and generally spend more time learning about issues that affect them (such as health care). Knowing all this, what politician wouldn’t want to swing by a retirement community full of potentially influential voters? The administration also enjoyed having candidates and office holders visit the community because it buoyed the community’s reputation and provided an opportunity for free lobbying about issues involving aging services. Naturally, these visits focused the political spotlight — if even just for a short time — and got residents and employees talking.

As aging services organizations like LeadingAge devote ever-increasing budgets to lobbying, the role of politics continues to balloon. This puts residents and providers into sometimes unenviable positions. For example, an administrator may want to have lunch with a local representative to talk about issues relating to her community. Meanwhile, the residents hear about this and ask why she’s supporting a candidate that doesn’t match their views. Perhaps the residents even ask the administrator what her political leanings are, which could only exacerbate the issue, leading to a harmful situation.

While it’s not a topic that many think about, senior bullying is a very real problem, and politics are one way it comes out. Think back to the woman at the start of this story. She said that she avoids people who want to talk politics. She is being forced to change her behavior to avoid uncomfortable situations induced by others. Is this bullying? Probably not, but it’s easy to see how residents could become so vocal in their views that it intimidates others and rises to the level of bullying.

So, with all this being said, what can providers and marketers do to help these situations? Start by settig the tone from the top — and we mean the very top! The board of directors and administration need to be on the same page, regardless of what that page might be. Most human resources departments have policies in place regarding political activities while at work, but it can never hurt to go back and ensure that it covers all the bases. For instance, does it include guidance on how to deal with political activities from residents? All of this should be done with one goal in mind — and that’s creating a culture of civility between everyone on your campus.

Politics are part of life in America. We can’t ignore them, and we shouldn’t expect our residents and employees to, either. However, we can and should discuss proper boundaries around the topic and be proactive in creating civil spaces on our campuses. Politics, by nature, will always be divisive, but that doesn’t mean they have to divide our communities.

As communications professionals in the world of marketing, the way we frame language around our products is very important. In the digital realm, it becomes vital — especially in a world of search engine marketing and optimization that’s driven by customer vocabulary. Through this, users influence how organizations market themselves; meanwhile, providers try to influence a user’s search language by changing industry-accepted terms.

A great example of this is the term “Continuing Care Retirement Community.” It was adopted by the aging services field, but over time, it failed to truly describe what consumers want. Recently, the industry leaders (including our team at Varsity) pulled together to recommend the term “Life Plan Community” be adopted as a more aspirational term for the Boomers. Let’s pull back a bit further and think critically about how we continue to use language as senior living marketers.

If you perform a Google search for retirement communities or senior living options, you’ll generally run into two euphemisms used by marketers — “luxury” and “affordable.” I ask myself, if I were in the market for aging services, what do these terms say to me?

Luxury — “Luxury means the finest amenities and high-end dining” or, perhaps, “Do I have enough money to afford this property?”


Affordable — “Oh, great. A community that won’t break the bank and that I could actually afford” or, perhaps, “I guess I’ll settle for whatever an affordable community has because I can’t afford luxury.”

There are upsides and downsides to how we interpret these shorthand phrases. Certainly, marketers like them because they force consumers to self-segment. Those without assets will naturally avoid luxury, and those with money wouldn’t be interested in the more limited offerings found in the affordable space. Certainly, as we manage search engine marketing campaigns, providers often identify “affordable” as a negative keyword, meaning that if a user enters that phrase in his or her search, an ad will not be shown because the organization assumes that the user can’t afford its offerings.

Maybe you’re like us, and you’ve noticed something missing. Yes, just like the rest of America, we’re forgetting the middle class. Middle class used to be something everyone aspired to. It was a positive to be middle class, and people were proud of that label. Today, it seems that if you aren’t part of the upper, then you’re just part of the lower. When did that change? When did aging services stop engaging with the middle class?

For instance, let’s look at these search terms from Google Trends. This data is only for the United States, over the last 12 months, and shows the popularity of each phrase when it comes to searches:

The blue bar is “affordable senior living.”

The red bar is “luxury senior living.”

The yellow bar at the bottom is “middle class senior living.”

As you can see, no one searches for “middle class senior living.” There are plenty of reasons why this may be, but certainly it’s not a term used by providers to market their products. No one wants to be labeled “middle class,” it seems. What, then, is the term used by average Americans to find a middle-of-the-road community? In this case, there isn’t a universal answer — and, in my mind, that’s an opportunity.

While many communities are focusing on luxury and are trying to bring in asset-laden residents, there’s a strong middle class, driven by Baby Boomers, that are going to be looking for a retirement option. If providers can find a way to cater to this segment, they could potentially have much to gain. Marketers need to begin working now to define what middle class retirement accommodations look like and educate potential residents on how to find them.

Language is an amazingly powerful tool. As marketing professionals, we have a way of impacting how people perceive and interact with the products we make. No one would describe an Apple product as an affordable brand, but many do think of it as a luxury. Yet, for many Americans, it’s a luxury they can afford and represents a certain amount of prestige and status.

As we look to the future of marketing in the senior space, how do we capitalize on this and tell middle class Americans that a quality retirement experience is a luxury they, too, can afford?

That’s something that we, at Varsity, are thinking quite a lot about.

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.


American culture values youth, vitality and enthusiasm far more than age, wisdom and experience. In contrast to this, we find Eastern cultures — such as Japan, Vietnam and Korea — where veneration and obedience to one’s elders is the cultural norm — except in the workplace. As Western influences continue to be exported to these countries, their views on the aged are also changing. EverYoung, a new start-up in Seoul, has recognized this issue and is addressing it, head-on.

Founded by Chung Eunsung, a 56-year-old veteran executive, EverYoung aims to leverage the knowledge and skill found in older workers to make Korea more competitive in the global market. The company specializes in teaching older workers basic computer skills that enable them to do work for Naver, the Google of South Korea. The workers do routine monitoring and assist with reporting and censoring information as mandated by the government. Those with advance computing skills are encouraged to teach coding classes to children.

The culture of the company is also important. Workers only have four-hour shifts, enabling them to spend time with family as they desire. The benefits package is also very rich — with special attention paid to wellness-related measures — all in an effort to keep an aging workforce healthy and active. Oh, and don’t forget the after-work social programs, such as the company rock band!

While all of this sounds nice from a personal standpoint, does it make sense for business? Initially, the company had 30 employees. Now, it has more than 400. According to government data, more than 13 percent of Korea’s current population is over 55+, but by 2030, that number will skyrocket to nearly 25 percent. In a society where workers are routinely forced to retire before they hit the age of 60, EverYoung’s model is set to scoop up talented employees that might not otherwise find work — and competition for the jobs is fierce.

In Korea, the state doesn’t provide much by way of retirement benefits, forcing retirees to rely on their young relatives for basic needs, often living in the same home with them (a very foreign concept for the Western world). EverYoung provides a source of income for this population, but it goes beyond that. It also provides a sense of worth and combats the psychological pressures of aging, such as loneliness and withdrawal.

Retirement communities in the United States are often very adept at putting their residents “to work,” offering them volunteer opportunities that enable them to contribute to their communities. However, as the Baby Boomers age out of the workforce and into the world of retirement, their demands for meaningful community contribution are going to increase. Stateside companies would do well to adopt the EverYoung model, as this “new” workforce is right around the corner and could be a great boon — both for the individuals and for business.

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!

In a crowded aging services marketplace, retirement communities are working around the clock to find ways to differentiate themselves from their competitors. These tactics often include new amenities, varied dining experiences, and ever more involved life enrichment programs. While these upgrades are nice, and may help sway some new residents to sign on the proverbial dotted line, they often aren’t the deciding factor in choosing a community. We all know that location and culture trump granite countertops, lobster dinners, and symphony tickets.

So, let’s be honest with ourselves for a second, shall we? Most retirement communities are the same.

This is a blasphemous statement, I know! But, in a world populated by tens of thousands of communities, they just aren’t all that different when you get right down to it. Nonprofit communities all have a mission that involves caring for and supporting their residents to enable them to live their best life. The words might vary, but the intention is often very similar. So, naturally, these communities try to differentiate themselves from their competitors through physical amenities, unique programs, and better marketing.

Yet, as we opened with, these items usually don’t completely explain why someone chooses one community over another; they are supplemental factors to location and culture. Of course, you can’t change your location, but you can change your culture in a way that will make your community truly unique and quickly make you stand out from your competitors, attracting better leads and more new residents in the process. Here are three ways that you can grow your community culture and attract new residents.


SAGE is a non-profit organization dedicated to assisting an overlooked and growing portion of the senior market. They advocate and provide services to older people who are GLBT. People in this market have special needs and wants when it comes to senior living and they can easily feel out of place at even the most “welcoming” community. Through their sagecare program, SAGE offers education courses for senior living leaders, managers, and front line employees. This education culminates in a credential provided by the organization denoting the level of training received (bronze, silver, gold.) By training staff in working with the GLBT population and implementing a culture of inclusiveness, you can quickly differentiate yourself from surrounding communities and have an inside track with a market that your competitors are probably ignoring.

Thanks to their strong marketing campaigns, you’ve probably heard of SeniorAdvisor. As an independent senior living review site, SeniorAdvisor has shown strong growth in the past few years. Unlike some other Senior Living referral sites, SeniorAdvisor doesn’t cost your community a dime and it performs two very important functions. First, it offers a forum for individuals to rate and review your community, independent of your digital presence. Of course, this doesn’t preclude you from asking your residents to review you on the site and leave feedback. By doing so, you can create a pool of positive reviews that demonstrates the culture of your community and provides a resource for potential residents who would like to know more about your community. Plus, the listings on SeniorAdvisor can create excellent backlinks, boosting your SEO in the process.

Also, awards an annual “Best of” recognition to those communities who have had a sufficient number of positive reviews in the previous twelve months. This is a great credential to earn and includes both digital badges for your website and physical awards for your sales office. You should never underestimate the power of an independent review and recognition from an outside organization!

Find your niche.

This one is a little bit harder to articulate, as it’s not a certification or award, but rather a holistic piece of your culture that you must decide on. At one time, nearly every non-profit retirement was designed to service a niche in the local community. This is why we have organizations affiliated with various religious denominations, community organizations, and fraternal groups. They cater to these once large populations with a culture that was directly influenced by the common bond of membership. However, as membership in these groups has dwindled, so has interest in their retirement communities, forcing these nonprofits to go looking elsewhere for residents. Yet, the idea of a niche is still important; you just have to think about it in a different way.

Do you have a strong resident club that plays to a certain interest – perhaps the environment, organic gardening, or philanthropy? Find those niches and embrace them. While you probably can’t focus your entire community on a single niche (although some new communities are doing just that), you can use the interests of your current residents to connect with potential residents and help them see that the culture of your community lines up well with what they are looking for.

Knowing the culture of your community, and who that culture appeals to, can help you better market to future residents that are more likely to move in. While physical amenities can help sway a decision, a strong culture that attracts a broad range of residents can have a greater impact on your occupancy rates than any new restaurant or upgraded kitchen!


One thing nearly every retirement community can agree on is that they feel like they go unnoticed. Marketing managers around the country are all too familiar with the phrase, “We’ve lived in this area our entire lives and never knew you were here or what you did.” Of course, this refrain drives retirement living professionals batty, as they are often working very hard — and spending lots of money — in an effort to get someone to consider making their property home. To this end, one of the biggest pieces of the puzzle is a robust public relations plan that both informs the wider neighborhood of their existence and acts as a marketing tool that helps to bring in prospective residents.

Getting local media outlets to cover a retirement community isn’t always easy. While we, as professionals working in the industry, see and hear all of the amazing stories our residents share, it is often difficult to get reporters and journalists to pay attention. And why should they? While Mr. Jones may have an amazing story about his involvement in the Korean conflict, there is probably a Mr. Jones at every community. Finding an angle for a story that piques the interest of the media can be difficult, but we have some tips on where you can find those stories.

First, think quirky! Some of the best story hooks in your community may be hidden just under the surface and are things that you don’t even notice anymore. That resident whose apartment is entirely decorated with elephants may be old news to you, but his or her quirky collection may just be the interesting hook that a reporter will bite at. Nearly everyone has something quirky that makes him or her unique, so don’t be afraid to share it.

Next, try to tie someone’s life story into what’s currently trending. Perhaps a neighborhood in your community is undergoing a revitalization, and it’s the same area in which many of your residents grew up. Hearing how the neighborhood has changed, grown or even remained somewhat the same over the course of several decades can be a fun story to share! Every resident has a unique outlook based on his or her life experience, so sharing how those memories reflect on today’s society can be a great starting point for an article or interview.

Finally, embrace popular culture. What’s the latest fad that kids are into? Finding a way to connect your population to that fad or a public relations piece can be great fun! One great idea we had was to ask residents to interact with a fidget spinner, the toy craze that hit earlier this summer. While many parents and teachers saw the gizmos as silly, we found that some retirees loved to play with the toy — and we captured their reactions as they did!

Great public relations stories for your community are occurring every day. Finding a way to make the unique and different is what will appeal to reporters. If you remember to look for the quirky, keep an eye on trends and embrace popular culture, you’ll uncover a slew of stories in no time flat!

You’re excited. This is the day you’ve been waiting for since that fateful date nearly 12 months ago. You’ve spent hundreds of hours planning and designing, making sure everything is right. You’ve met with dozens of vendors and have a script for how the whole day should go. That’s right — it’s launch day for your new website!

But, three months later, you’ve realized that there was a hole in your plan. That new website is starting to feel stale already. The pictures haven’t changed. The blog hasn’t been updated. Your integrated Facebook and Twitter feeds are displaying posts that are already two months old. Getting the website to launch was such hard work, you assumed it would be all downhill once it went live. However, now you realize that that was the simple part; finding time to curate content, post updates on social media, change out photos and respond to inquiries isn’t just hard — it’s nearly impossible.

We’ve seen this time and time again within the senior living space. Finding the time to actively manage the digital presence of the organization is a big challenge. Many communities leave this task to marketing or sales managers who have to choose between posting a nice photo or having a conversation that could lead to a sale. Of course, the sale will always take priority, leaving the digital presence to stagnate over time. Finding quick, shareable content may be slightly easier than you realize, though. We have three proven strategies that will help you find additional engaging content quickly!

  1. Don’t be a lone warrior.
    Amazing, shareable stories are happening around your community every single day, but you’re only one person. That’s why you need to enlist the help of your employees and residents. Start creating a culture of shareable moments today by encouraging others to share their moments with you. Yes, there are some pitfalls that have to be avoided regarding photo releases, but a little bit of training with your staff and residents could produce huge dividends in the form of wonderful, engaging photographs and stories that you might not have ever heard about otherwise.
  2. Think small.
    Whenever your community is holding a big event or celebration, it’s easy to find shareable moments. Veteran events, innovative programs and food tastings always make for good content. However, it’s the smaller, daily moments that really make your social presence something special. If Mrs. Johnson is always walking her poodle around your community, stop and ask to take a picture. Share Mrs. Johnson and Fido with the rest of the world. After all, they are a part of the fabric of life for your residents. Showing families and potential residents what life is like at your community, day in and day out, is really important for a long-term social media strategy.
  3. Stop being a perfectionist.
    Everybody wants their organization to look its best. However, just like a person, there are going to be slight imperfections that crop up. Maybe that picture of a vibrant, exciting resident shows another resident in the background in a motorized chair. That’s okay! That’s real life at your community. Yes, in pre-planned advertising, such as print or television, you’ll want perfectly shot, model-quality photographs, but social media is meant to capture everyday life. None of us look like models every day, and we can’t expect our communities and residents to do so, either.

Generating content for social media and blogs doesn’t have to be difficult. Your social media feed should feel like someone is walking the halls of your community, experiencing what life is like. It should never feel like they are enduring a sales pitch or having a digital “lunch and learn.” Be true to your community and show off what life is genuinely like there, and you’ll soon have more content than you ever thought imaginable!






LeadingAge PA is well known for an outstanding annual conference. In 2017, it only bolstered its reputation further with a well-organized and highly educational event. The Varsity team was out in full force at this year’s conference, meeting with old friends, making new ones and keeping abreast of the changes in the senior services industry. As I reflect on the event, I find that I had three takeaways that will certainly impact how I approach those we serve and their residents.

1) Residential living will give way to more in-home services.

James Orlikoff’s presentation on the shifting macroeconomics of health care and the shifting demographics of aging services was incredibly profound. During his presentation, he discussed how the United States has become mired in the current health care system we have and what impact it will have on the future of senior services. What really drove his point home, however, was the story of his own father who eschewed a retirement community until the very last minute, preferring instead to live at home with a caregiver. Not only was this option less expensive, but it also provided the peace of living your last days in your home. This is the type of care that many are going to begin seeking out. If senior living providers aren’t taking these desires into account, they may quickly find themselves left behind. As one colleague put it, “I didn’t like hearing what he had to say, but I needed to hear it. Things are going to change.”

2) Senior living providers must become more transparent.

Over the course of several presentations throughout the week, I was struck by how often the word “transparent” kept popping up. Whether the topic was crisis communications, survey results, marketing materials or the relationship with your board, communities must work to become as transparent as possible. In today’s social climate, where surveys and 990s rule the day, organizations cannot try to hide their foibles and hope no one finds out. Recognizing your challenges up front — and providing a plan to address them in a timely manner — is what’s expected. If there are issues at your community, whether real or perceived, act now to address them and, if needed, bring in an outside professional to help.

3) Community culture can’t be forced.

Much discussion was had regarding the culture of senior living providers —from how they treat their residents and staff to the impact they have in their local communities. These cultures are often quite strong, with well-established missions, values and goals. Increasingly, potential residents aren’t just evaluating the pricing scheme and floor plans of a prospective community, but also the culture of life there. While your culture and values may be very important to you, imposing them on potential residents could quickly become a turn-off. This isn’t to say that strong values are bad. Rather, we encourage you to better understand those values and be ready to articulate how residents of any background can embrace them. As James Orlikoff said in his presentation:

“Those senior services providers were quick to tell us what they were about. They told us about their missions and values. They were proud of the cultures they created. But not one of them stopped to ask my father about his values and what he wanted. It was a ‘take it or leave it’ proposition. He chose to leave it and go out on his terms.”

We certainly enjoyed #Connect17 with our LeadingAge PA friends. Kudos to the organizers, directors and staff, who created a fantastic event that certainly will change the way nonprofit senior service providers in Pennsylvania approach resident care!

Let’s face it — no one wants to think about something catastrophic happening at their community. Fires, floods and earthquakes are all very real possibilities that communities must prepare for. In modern times, we’ve also added situations, such as active shooters, elopements and bomb threats to the canon of issues communities should be prepared to handle. With this in mind, many organizations provide extensive training to employees who would have to respond to these events in hopes that they can keep residents safe and minimize physical damage to property and systems. However, there is another more serious type of damage that communities might face — a damaged reputation from poor communication.

To be clear, at absolutely no time should any organization try to preserve its reputation at the cost of others’ safety. That’s not what I’m talking about at all! Rather, I’m focusing on the story that comes out after one of these events occurs. In the world of public relations, this is referred to as crisis communication. Being able to keep cool and relay important information in the face of adversity is a skill that most people don’t inherently have, even in the best of times. Now, imagine yourself in a highly stressful situation where you are being asked tough questions and accused of malfeasance. At that moment, how you react to reporters and interested parities can either set minds at ease or exacerbate a problem to new heights.

Most communities don’t have the luxury of having an on-site, dedicated communications person. Usually, communications is handled at a corporate level or is defaulted to an employee in an adjacent field, such as marketing or human resources. These individuals are rarely prepared to handle an emerging situation, and corporate’s ability to respond may lag for a variety of reasons. News agencies today aren’t going to sit idly by while they wait for your PR director show up and take control of the situation. They are going to start fleshing out a story wherever they can find it, probably embellishing along the way in hopes of making the situation more interesting for viewers and readers. It’s in those critical moments, immediately after an event occurs, that you need to take control of the story.

To accomplish this, we recommend that every community have the following three items in place:

  1. Resident, employee and family emergency alert system — Technology today makes this very easy. If there is an incident at your community at any time, you should have a system in place to immediately and efficiently contact current residents and their family members. The communications that go out on these broadcasts should be prepared in advance (as much as possible) and speak to the safety of those involved. In an emergency, the first concern loved ones have is for the physical well-being of their family members. Addressing those types of questions is your top priority.
  2. Contact information for leadership — Communities should have a list of contact information for key officials that will be more able to handle difficult questions. This can help redirect reporters to individuals that they can talk to and alleviate the stress being put on staff that might be asked to comment on an issue.
  3. Training for staff — Your staff should know and understand your policies about who can and can’t make statements on behalf of the organization. Employees generally know they shouldn’t try to act as representatives, but they may be asked by a reporter about what they saw or experienced personally. Until a situation is under control, employees shouldn’t respond to these questions at all. Therefore, providing a bit of training and information before an issue arises can help to mitigate any comments that might be made later on.

Every community owes it to its residents to have plans in place for a myriad number of emergencies — and most already have done this. However, it’s important that they take these exercises a step further and imagine the role that timely communications will play in incident response. Maintenance and security might be prepared for the next calamity, but is your executive director ready? How about sales & marketing? Now is the time to address these issues, before an incident occurs.



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!

Anyone who has worked at a retirement community, for even a short length of time, has encountered a resident that never receives visitors. The situations may vary from case to case, with one resident having no children or family, while another has an extensive family network that happens to live far away. Regardless of the reasons, lack of social interactions with the one’s you love will leave anyone in the doldrums. If this continues long enough, mental health issues could arise, leading to more severe repercussions. It’s important for residents to have visitors that actively engage with them. But, how do you encourage family and friends to come visit when, more often than not, the last place they want to spend their Saturday is hanging around a retirement community?

In 2010, the CDC conducted a survey at residential care facilities, asking participants how many times  a resident received a visitor from outside the community. While visitation frequency varied among the group, 8 percent of those surveys received no outside visitors in 90 days. Extrapolating this, how many residents does your community have? That means, for every 100 residents, roughly eight of them have not had any outside contact in the last month. Now that’s a statistic to be concerned about.

As a community, it behooves senior living providers to make visitation not only easy, but also enjoyable for everyone. Taking a creative look at ways to engage residents, their families and friends will help encourage more frequent visitations and improved morale.

Some ideas include:

  • Mani/pedi day, where residents and their families can schedule a manicure with a professional at your community. Make sure to provide plenty of magazines and really go for the full salon experience!
  • Provide designated areas for dogs at your community. This way, families can bring their pets for a day with a resident.
  • Schedule a bus trip to a local restaurant and invite the family to have a meal with the resident outside of your community.
  • Plan a movie night, with a newer film that families may not have seen before. Bring in a popcorn machine and candy to really provide the full movie-viewing experience!
  • Families can bring unfolded laundry and visit while folding it. Yes, this sounds incredibly strange, but look at it from another angle. Many residents spent years being productive and contributing to their households. The ability to feel useful and needed again can be a big ego boost to someone who doesn’t see many visitors (but, make sure the resident is okay with this before coming with your duffel full of clothes!)
  • Organize a resident-family scavenger hunt. This provides time for meaningful interaction with the resident, as well an opportunity to explore the community.
  • Host a traveling zoo! Many local zoological societies have a traveling zoo that they can bring to your community. Residents and families alike will love this event!
  • Produce a trivia night, just like at the local pub! Many times, events are geared toward families with children. But what about having a pub trivia night? Offer adult beverages and hire a professional to host the game. This could encourage 20-somethings to visit and engage with their relatives when they might not otherwise!
  • Many communities have cooking classes or demonstrations already. Why not have one that is family-oriented, where children and grandchildren can assist the resident in making a delicious dish for all to share!
  • For those active residents, how about an on-site sports league with family and friends! Billiards, bowling, bocce and tennis make a great option. Pairing an active resident with a younger family member in a multi-week league will provide a great reason for ongoing interactions.

The key to all of these ideas is simple — by creating a little bit of enticement, you can encourage residents’ families to visit more frequently, having more meaningful interactions in the process. At the end of the day, this will not only make your community happier and more lively, but it will give you a unique niche in the marketplace that many other organizations aren’t yet exploring.

The Better Business Bureau has declared May National Moving Month, a time when the rate of moves from one living situation to another dramatically increases. This trend can be seen across many demographics, from college students leaving their dorms to begin careers, to homeowners making a change. According to the United States Census Bureau, about one in nine Americans changes domicile every year, meaning that roughly 40 million of us will celebrate New Year’s Eve at a new home when 2017 comes to a close.

Moving is often cited as one of the most stressful events for people. The process of packing up one’s life and shipping it off to somewhere new is stressful enough. Top it off with the mountain of address changes, changing utilities and new municipalities, and it’s easy to understand how the whole process can be overwhelming! Now, let’s imagine that you’re 70 years old and haven’t had to move in 30 to 40 years. How daunting a task must that move be! That is exactly the situation that new retirement community residents are in.

As retirement community marketers and specialists, we realize that the biggest competitors a retirement community has aren’t other senior living options. Rather, it’s the home the potential residents are already in. As they contemplate the move, they begin to look around their homes and realize the scope of the task at hand. Cleaning out all of those closets full of memories, changing neighbors and routines, along with having to sell the home causes retirees an incredible amount of stress. How can communities overcome this?

It’s simple, really — solve the problem!

Okay, it sounds simple, but we know that it’s really not. Every potential resident is different. The challenges that one individual finds overwhelming can be completely unassuming to another. It’s the job of the sales person/marketer to listen closely to what the customer is saying, work toward identifying the problem, and then offer a solution. Sales are more often won by listening instead of talking!

Let’s use an example scenario for what this might look like in real life.

Mr. and Mrs. Jenkins have looked at your community for several months. They’ve come to events and have proven a solid lead. But you just can’t get them to sign on the dotted line. Time is running out, and soon they’ll be forced onto the waiting list if they don’t make a decision. You call the couple, getting Mr. Jenkins on the line. You explain the situation to him in hopes that you can push through to the sale. Mr. Jenkins remains reluctant, however. He seems particularly hung up on your pet policy, since he loves his bulldog, Bluto. You remind him that your community welcomes pets and that there are plenty of other dogs in the neighborhood where the Jenkins would reside. Still, he seems wary. When you push him about coming for another visit, he hands the phone over to his wife. You mention to Mrs. Jenkins about the pet policy and try to reassure her that Bluto would make a fine addition to the neighborhood. That’s when you find out what the real problem is. Bluto has been having some health troubles the last few months and has been to the vet several times. He’s on some new medications, and Mr. Jenkins is wary of having to switch vets in order to move to your community. Eureka! Now you know what the problem is and how to solve it.

How would you go about solving this sales problem? Perhaps you’d provide the Jenkins a list of nearby vets. But what can you do to really build the relationship and seal the deal? Perhaps you could arrange a meeting between the Jenkins and a local veterinarian that has a good relationship with the community. Maybe host a resident-lead event where they can bring out their pets to meet with the vet. Getting creative about solving the problem can make the difference between a missed opportunity and a sale.

With so many people looking to move in May, now is the time to think about how you can make moving to your community easier. Having a toolbox of unique and helpful solutions will enable you to build better relationships by listening to prospect’s real needs more than trying to meet perceived ones.

Regardless of industry, the goal and function of sales departments don’t change much. Sales professionals work with marketing to generate leads through a plethora of different means. Once the sales person has a name and contact information for someone interested in the product, he or she begins to guide the person through the decision-making process of purchasing the product, with the end goal of closing the deal.

However, marketing to Boomers and seniors requires a different approach — especially when your product is a major investment, like moving to a retirement community. How a salesperson engages with his or her leads and guides them to the final sale is an art that takes time to learn, and everyone can always use a refresher.

Marketing and sales professionals deal in information. The more information they have about a lead, the better equipped they are to pitch their product. Thus, it’s to be expected that they want to gather a great amount of information in a short period of time. The best example of this is the web form.

Web forms offer a great way to capture information to create a lead. Obviously, sales associates hope to get as much detail about a prospect as they can — name, address, phone number, etc. — but trying to get too much information in one shot will not only decrease your form completions, but potentially alienate customers. Your forms should capture the minimum amount of information possible for a salesperson to begin building a relationship.

Think about it from your own point of view. How much information are you willing to give an organization with which you haven’t had any experience? You don’t really know it or trust it. Naturally, you only want to provide the minimum amount of information needed to learn about the product or service being offered. Once you’ve determined that the group can be trusted, and its product is something that you want, you’re willing to open up more.  A simple web-started sales funnel may look something like this:

  • SEO/SEM (get the person to your website)
  • Contact Us form on the website (asking for only a name and an email address)
  • Follow-up e-blast (asking for an address to send information)
  • Mailer sent to lead (asking the person to call to register for an event, where he or she gives a phone number)
  • Attendance at an event (where the salesperson meets the lead in person)
  • Follow-up contact (via phone and email to schedule a tour)
  • Personal tour (second salesperson meeting, builds trust)
  • Additional meetings or tours (dependent on lead)
  • Closing of sale
  • Asking for reviews and recommendations

As you can see, this isn’t a quick process! The average lead will have at least 20 interactions with your community before the sale is complete — and may have many, many more, depending on his or her needs! Understanding how to nurture the lead through the sales funnel, step by step, instead of trying to go “all-in” on early stage information-gathering is critical.

Every retirement community has its own unique challenges with this process, and variations abound. At Varsity, we have become very adept at assisting communities in identifying the type of leads they are generating now and the type of leads they want to gather in the future, creating a sales process that will help increase their census for years to come.

Retirement communities often operate on tight budgets, with a goal of reducing overhead costs. Executives and administrators hawkishly watch financials, looking for any avenues where dollars can be saved. Human Resources is forced to cut benefits, while purchasing tries new products to save costs on cleaning and operating supplies. However, sometimes, saving money in the long run costs some in the short. Working with your maintenance division to convert systems to more environmentally friendly options may incur costs today that will save you thousands in years to come.

The easiest and most well-known method of savings is converting lights to LED bulbs. One community in upstate New York was recently profiled for doing just this. The community replaced 2,750 bulbs, at a cost of about $1,500. The result? A projected yearly savings of $144,000! In roughly 10 days, the community had recouped its investment and was on the path to saving money for years to come. LED bulbs are getting cheaper and brighter, in addition to having longer lives and being less harmful to the environment. Every community should be looking at a full light bulb replacement, if they haven’t done so already.

We all know that some of the biggest energy hogs in our own homes are our washers and dryers. Retirement communities are no different, spending tens of thousands of dollars every year on laundering linens and clothes. One may think that the process of doing laundry hasn’t really changed that much in the last 50 years; one machine uses hot water and soap to wash the linens, and another dries them; however, there is another way to do laundry that has been on the market for longer than you may realize — ozone washing machines. Rather than using hot water and soap, these machines use gasses and cold water (and much less of it). Rather than using detergent, the water is treated with ozone, causing dirt and stains to break down while linens remain vibrant and strong. It’s a complicated process, to be sure, which is why the machines have always been so expensive. Now, with advances in manufacturing and production technology, they are becoming more affordable, enabling communities to convert to their use, saving on energy, water and sewer costs while becoming more environmentally friendly in the process.

On the higher cost end of the spectrum, we find advanced smart home systems that include the Nest thermostat and similar devices. These products adjust home temperature based on user preference and patterns, such as lowering the temperature while the resident is asleep and at work, and raising it while the resident is at home — all automatically. Think of the energy savings that your community could yield by just turning down the thermostats by three degrees for 12 hours a day in every home. It seems like a small change, but the savings could be huge! As this technology grows, it’s being added to complete smart home systems, where community managers can monitor usage in real time, allowing them to look for areas to proactively save on energy costs by including their residents in the decision-making process.

The old adage, “It takes money to make money,” remains true today. It can also be said that “it takes money to save money.” By investing wisely in eco-friendly and efficient systems, your community could be seeing both greener trees and greener wallets.



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.

Today we’re tackling the every important “call to action.”

A call-to-action, often referred to as a “CTA,” is a tool used in web design to direct the user to do something that the website owner wants. In the old days, this was a blinking piece of text that shouted, “CLICK HERE!!!!” Today, the CTA has matured into buttons, forms and other interactions. These elements have converted websites from being static, digital brochures to engaging marketing tools that put the user in the driver’s seat when it comes to how they are advertised.

Retirement community CTAs are most often an attempt to get the user to provide some personal contact information so that he or she can become a warm lead for marketers. The site might offer a free e-book or resource document in exchange for an email address or phone number. Potential residents may also be able to register for seminars and tours through a website call-to-action that encourages them to “Sign up now!” The trick is for the potential resident to make that initial contact so that a salesperson can follow up and begin working him or her down the sales funnel toward a move-in.

Mixing up these calls-to-action, offering different incentives and using different copy will help you determine which ones work best and which are ineffective. No one gets it right every time when it comes to marketing. Testing, honing and refining are key steps in creating strong, lead-generating CTAs. At Varsity, we’ve had the privilege of working with many varied clients, in all market conditions. Our curiosity drives us to continually test and refine the CTAs we develop for our clients. This accumulated knowledge and testing then proves its real-world value with not only increased leads, but better quality leads that are more likely to commit to purchase.

What does increased marijuana use among aging adults mean for retirement communities and health care organizations?

February was Marijuana Awareness Month. With the national attitude toward the drug changing sharply in recent years, use of the substance among many cohorts is on the rise. At one time, its use by Boomers and seniors was only acknowledged in hushed whispers. Today, those same users are being more open about the medical benefits and their enjoyment of marijuana recreationally, furthering the cultural shift surrounding its legalization in many states.

This attitudinal change is becoming especially prevalent among aging adults who are usually thought of as being traditional and conservative. Recent studies show that, while drug and alcohol use and abuse are down among teens, they are rising among those 50 and older. A 2013 study showed that 7.1 percent of adults aged 50 to 64 had used marijuana in the past 12 months, with projections that the statistic will continue to rise.

What does this mean for organizations working with this population and providing for its health care needs? According to the journal, Health Affairs, it’s having a major impact on the prescription rate of painkillers, antidepressants and several other classes of drugs. The typical physician in a medical marijuana state prescribed 1,826 fewer doses of painkillers in a given year following legalization. Not only does that statistic impact those prescribed the drug, but it also has a greater community impact for those addicted to prescription painkillers and the drug trade that is dependent on their availability.

For retirement communities, the situation is a challenge. In many states, communities are avoiding dispensing the drug themselves, leaving it to the resident to obtain the substance and self-medicate. Those that are managing its use are relying on synthetic versions under physician guidance; however, one common trait that remains is communities being smoke-free, regardless of whether or not the substance is being consumed.

More than half of all Americans live in a place where marijuana is legal for recreational or medical purposes. Many Boomers and seniors came of age during the 1960s, when marijuana was demonized and classified as a “Schedule 1” substance by the government. But, at the same time, teens and young adults were experimenting with the substance, learning firsthand that it wasn’t nearly as scary as the authorities described. Perhaps the direct experience of youthful rebellion has helped steer the changing dialogue around the drug as those young “hippies” of the 1960s have become the leaders of today.

Wouldn’t you like to know on which day of the week residents exercise most? In what weather they exercise least? Where staff and residents interact most on campus? The answers to these and other questions were revealed in a LeadingAge Annual Meeting & Expo session on data’s link to wellness. Missed it? Watch the video to hear residents and leaders share how big data makes a big difference in well-being.

The video kicked off “Linking Data to Wellness, a Personalized Approach to Well-being,” presented by John Bassounas, Partner, Varsity; Kevin Purcell, Chief Data Scientist, Varsity; and Justin Margut, Wellness Manager, Bethany Village Retirement Community.

The session revealed three important things data analysis can tell you about wellness:

  1. The movement of behavior and trends among your residents at all levels of care
  2. How residents use the resources and facilities within a community
  3. Patterns of interaction between staff and residents along the continuum of care

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

Events are extremely important to the senior living sales process and should be a key component of every marketing plan. Seminars and special events create a forum for prospects to experience your community and receive information in a nonthreatening environment where they don’t feel pressured to buy. If a prospect objects to coming in for a personal presentation, have an event in your back pocket as an alternative.

Here are some key tips to ensure a successful and effective event:

  • Serve food. Food is very important to our prospects, so wine and dine them, and show off your culinary expertise. An event that includes a meal will also draw a higher response. Yes, we all have the “frequent flyers” that show up every time for the free food with no intention of ever moving in. But consider this: The cost of feeding these regulars is minimal in comparison to the positive PR that they provide by telling friends about your engaging programs and delicious food. And, if these people are qualified, they will choose your community when they are “ready” because they are already familiar and comfortable with it.
  • Designate resident ambassadors. Include hand-picked resident ambassadors at every event, and strategically place them at each table. They will tell prospects who “aren’t ready yet” how they once felt the same way and now wish they had moved in 10 years sooner. They are your best spokespeople and carry more credibility than a salesperson. Make sure to reward ambassadors for their time and effort with tokens of appreciation, such as the floral centerpiece from their table at the event or a gift card to a popular local spot.
  • Plan parking. One of the most common objections I hear about hosting events is that the community doesn’t have enough parking. Every problem has a solution: Ask staff to park off-site, shuttle attendees back and forth to their cars, and/or hire a valet company to park cars.
  • Follow up. Always follow up with all attendees after an event and ask 1) how they enjoyed it; 2) if there are other topics they might be interested in learning about in the future; and 3) if they would like to come in for a personal tour of the community to get their questions answered. You should always have a reason to call prospects, and this is the perfect opportunity to reach out.

Have event ideas and tips to share? Email them to

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.


In today’s senior living marketing environment, the timeline from initial inquiry to move-in is longer than ever before, and it takes many touches along that timeline to convert an inquiry to a sale. These touches must be consistent, meaningful and varied in order to effectively move the prospect forward in the sales process. Some of these points of contact include events, which are an essential part of a strategic marketing plan.

The key word here is “strategic.” What are your objectives for each event? Do you want to educate, entertain or demonstrate lifestyle? Generate new leads for your pipeline? Close sales? Here are some key points to consider:

  • New lead generation. If you are looking to generate new leads that are truly interested in finding out more about your community, purchase a qualified mailing list and invite its members to information sessions about your community and the concept of senior living.
  • Lifestyle events. Quality speakers and special events show that the community offers interesting, engaging programs and demonstrates the lifestyle that people will experience there. Topics such as healthy aging can showcase the community’s approach to wellness.
  • Addressing common objections. We know that the most common objections really boil down to fear, cost or lack of urgency due to prospects being satisfied with their current situation. Topics such as Dispelling the Myths of Retirement Living (fear), The Value of Life Care (cost) or Why Wait? (I’m Not Ready Yet) can help prospects get beyond some of these objections.
  • Specific inventory to sell. Perhaps you have a number of small one-bedroom apartments that are difficult to sell. Segment your purchased mailing list and lead base by single/widowed women (cue Beyonce’s “All the Single Ladies”) and host a champagne runway show featuring your residents modeling fashions from a popular boutique, followed by tours of your community and a professionally staged one-bedroom apartment. (Tiny homes are all the rage now!)

Seminars and special events can be very effective marketing tools that produce great results. Determine your objectives; define your target audience; choose a topic that relates to both; buy a new outfit (okay, I threw that in because it’s what I would do); and put on your best host/hostess smile!

Stay tuned for more event strategies in a future blog.

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.

1. Ensure that your marketing messages and images are not furthering the misperception that retirement communities are little more than nursing homes.
2. Implement an event strategy that brings prospects on campus to see for themselves what life could be like,.
3. Ensure your employees are knowledgeable and are delivering your brand each and every day to everyone they encounter including one another.
4. Emphasize your mission and residents who are living a mission-focused lifestyle.
5. Spend sufficient time educating prospects on the many benefits of having care available should they need it

For more insights on drawing prospects to your community, order a free copy of our latest white paper.

Even if you pack your diet with super foods like blueberries and broccoli, you could still be shortening your life if you’re not following the 80% rule. Why does this simple rule help you live longer?

Because it means eating only 80% of the food on your plate, which is one of nine healthy practices shared by people in longevity hot spots around the world. In fact, researchers found that in Okinawa, Japan (aka The Island of the Immortals), residents say “Hara Hachi Bu” before every meal. This phrase, which translates to “belly 80% full,” is their reminder to stop eating when their stomachs are 80% full.

We may not see an influx of 100-year-olds walking the earth, but the growing interest in leading a longer, happier life is a mature market trend we should all keep an eye on.

Next week, we’ll reveal what you should be eating.

It’s something we should all try, because it’s one of the 9 practices shared by residents of longevity hot spots around the world. Why is this habit so important?

Because research has found that habit #3, “downshift” (finding ways to relieve stress), can help you live longer and lower your risk of heart disease. For long-lived residents of Ikaria, Greece, downshifting means an afternoon nap. Why not join them? Happy snoozing!

Check back next week to hear about #4: the 80% rule.

You’ll find it in Blue Zones, places around the world where people live to 100 at rates ten times greater than in the U.S. They share nine healthy traits. And #2 has nothing to do with diet and exercise. It’s “Know Your Purpose,” which means knowing why you wake up in the morning – and it can add an extra seven years to your life expectancy.

Blue Zones researchers found that sense of purpose in places like Okinawa, Japan. They learned that Okinawans have clear feelings of being needed well into their 100s.

Think about ways to incorporate “Know Your Purpose” and the other 9 principles into marketing your products or services. One way: hold a “Purpose” workshop at your community to help residents explore their life dreams.

Next week, get ready to Downshift (#3).

Baby Boomers are about to do something undesirable yet inevitable — they’re going to start getting old. Will these years be filled with vitality or chronic disease?

Boomers can learn from those who live in Blue Zones, pockets around the world where people live measurably longer and better, reaching 100 years of age at rates 10 times greater than in the U.S.

Studies by Dan Buettner and a team of researchers found that the lifestyles of residents in these Blue Zones — Ikaria, Greece; Loma Linda, Calif.; Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; and Nicoya, Costa Rica — shared nine principles:

  1. Move naturally
  2. Know your purpose
  3. Downshift
  4. 80 percent rule
  5. Plant slant
  6. Wine @ 5
  7. Family first
  8. Belong
  9. Right tribe

Challenge your team to think about ways to incorporate these principles into marketing your products or services. We’ll help by discussing one each week in this blog. Let’s start with #1: Move naturally.

Moving naturally simply means finding ways to move more in your everyday life, so you burn more calories without even thinking about it. Some easy suggestions: Keep a garden, walk to a friend’s house, park at the far end of the lot, take the stairs. What other ways can you encourage your customers to move more?

Next week, we’ll cover #2: Know your purpose.

As I’ve been pondering David Bowie’s passing, I couldn’t help but be struck by how well he orchestrated the sequence of events leading up to his death.

At 69, David Bowie was a member of the Boomer generation. Now, while he wasn’t your average, everyday Boomer, he lived through the same world events as Boomers everywhere. And, after all, haven’t we learned that there really is no such thing as an “average, everyday Boomer”?

While Bowie could be defined as a rock star, he certainly wasn’t a cliché. He didn’t die of a pathetic overdose. He didn’t take his own life in a fit of angst. He didn’t go out in a fiery crash. He went out doing what he wanted to do: create.

David Bowie didn’t share with the world that cancer was eating away at his body. That was his personal right. He chose to keep that private and, while it meant the world would be shocked by the news of his passing, it also meant he was free to create, right until the end. There weren’t tabloid shots of his fluctuating weight. There wasn’t speculation about how long he had, or grainy images of him in a hospital somewhere. He maintained his privacy and, therefore, his dignity.

As many have written, he had beautifully orchestrated his goodbye, with both his new Off-Broadway musical, “Lazarus,” and his new album, “Blackstar.” And to top it off? The entire run of “Lazarus” sold out in a matter of hours, and “Blackstar” garnered some of his best reviews — all without the benefit of a “celebrity death” to spark that interest.

He reflected many of the traits we’ve seen in the Boomer generation: a love for life, pursuit of interests, desire for control over his own life — ultimately making his own decisions.

David Bowie was art. David Bowie was passion. David Bowie was an individual — just like so many of his fellow Boomers.

Once again, Varsity participated in LeadingAge National, which was held last week in Boston. We wanted to share a few key themes we heard from keynote speakers and in conversation with conference participants (or attendees).

  • What residents miss in care settings: Friendships, privacy and purpose — three brand attributes organizations should be chasing
  • Boomers want to be the author of their  story as they age: An insight that can help communities design their offerings
  • When investing in technology, pay for outcomes, not the device: Seems logical, but we’re not sure this is fully embedded in provider strategy
  • Demographics are disruptive: More attention must be paid to the impact of demographics on aging service organizations
  • Live longer. Live better: Nice tagline, and it reinforces that aging is about quality of life, rather than quantity
  • Project Namestorm: “Life Plan Community,” an alternative to the name “CCRC,” was introduced
  • Transition of leadership: From the top (Larry Minnix) to individual communities, we need to nurture the next generation of leaders
  • The LGBT campground: A bold symbol of inclusiveness at the show
  • The role of faith in branding and appeal: It’s about mission and non-profit status rather than specific denominational affiliation 
  • The transitional generation is impacting communities NOW: We must appeal to the needs and desires of the Boomer while serving long-time residents from the silent generation 

One last insight to leave you with: According to our new study, “From the Outside In,” 0% of residents used the Yellow Pages to begin their search for a retirement community.

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.

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.”

It can be a challenge coming up with exciting new activities in senior living, but one community used its swimming pool to offer something truly unique, aqua pole classes. Here are some other creative ideas for your pool activity calendar beyond water aerobics and lap swimming:

  • Relay races
  • Synchronized swimming
  • Water walking
  • Inner tube basketball
  • Kayak races

Water exercise benefits community residents in many ways, including improving mental health, strengthening bones and boosting metabolism—all without harming joints. And according to the CDC, people report enjoying water-based exercises more than exercising on land. Best of all, swimmers have about half the risk of death compared with inactive people.

What creative uses can you find for your community swimming pool?

Music has been shown to enhance brain function, reduce stress and build relationships.

And the more connected people feel to the music, the better. One study found that  seniors who sang along to tunes scored significantly better on cognitive tests than those who just listened.

In LA, a group of seniors has even formed its own band. “The Fifth Dementia” is made up of musicians with degenerative diseases and high school students.  Watch the video to see how they find a common language.

The band is part of Music Mends Minds, Inc., an organization created by Carol and Irwin Rosenstein when Irwin, a musician, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and discovered that music was beneficial to him. The organization’s mission is to use music to help control the progression of cognitive decline in seniors and build support systems for students.

The program has been a huge hit, and more musicians are still needed. Know someone who’s interested? Learn more here.

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.

A team of Varsity researchers brought Project Looking Glass and Project Looking Glass II to the field of aging services. In these nationally recognized studies, researchers moved into two retirement communities for 30 days; there they lived, ate, shopped and socialized alongside residents. We have now launched a third in-depth ethnographic study, called “Project Looking Glass III: From the Outside In.

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In essence, we are turning the looking glass around to dig more deeply into the decision-making process that prospects go through when choosing a community. We’ll learn what triggers people to start investigating senior living communities; what factors influence potential residents to choose or pass on a community; what their expectations were prior to moving into their new home; and the reality that they find as residents of the community.

We’ll evaluate the decision-making process to see how it may vary in different areas of the country and among different cohorts—the current aging generation of prospects (what we call “the transitional generation”) and Baby Boomers—each of which is at a different stage of investigation into retirement community living.

  • Silent Generation: Born 1910-1925
  • Transitional Generation: Born 1930-1950
  • Baby Boomers: Born 1946-1964

Insights from this study will assist senior living communities in further refining their marketing messages and targeting techniques to make sure they’re not only connecting with the right people, but are also having the most relevant, informed conversations that will lead to positive decisions.

If you are interested in participating in this study by having your prospective residents fill out an online survey and/or in having Varsity conduct focus groups at your community, please contact me at

Once again, we participated in the LeadingAge PA Annual Conference & Exposition, which was held this June in Hershey, Pa. Key leaders gathered to discuss ideas that will shape the future of senior living.

We wanted to share a few of the inspiring solutions we heard.

Swimming with the sharks. On her sixth attempt, 64-year-old Diane Nyad successfully battled sharks, venomous jellyfish and hypothermia to swim from Cuba to Key West. Her motivating advice for reaching your dreams: build a strong support team, give it your all, learn from your failures and never give up.

Spinning stories into marketing gold. Asbury’s session emphasized the importance of finding the right human interest story and repurposing it in blogs, newsletter articles and social media posts, all linking back to your website. Strategic storytelling can be a gold mine of leads, publicity and brand awareness.

Tapping the independent living middle-income market. As the economic spread continues to grow, creating an affordable community for the “working class” is a concept worth looking at.

The end of advertising. Advertising isn’t going extinct—we just need to rethink it. It’s about finding new ways to have conversations with prospects, so we can discover and meet their needs. The engagement shouldn’t stop once residents move in; they need to be invested in the community so they’ll share their positive feelings with new prospects.

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

Think that only blondes have more fun? That thinking is old. These days, the trend is not covering grey with color, but covering color with grey.

The grey hair or “granny hair” trend has been around for awhile but is going stronger than ever. A string of celebrities, including Lady Gaga, Kylie Jenner, Kate Moss, Kelly Osborn, Rihanna, Nicole Richie, and even Madonna’s daughter, Lourdes, have all rocked granny hair.

The Huffington Post calls granny hair the hottest beauty trend of spring/summer 2015. And #granny hair is all over social media, with 27,102 posts on Instagram right now. The fashion world is showing love for granny hair as well, with models for Gucci, Versace and Dior strutting their silver locks on the catwalk.

It’s wonderful that society is recognizing that looks of any age can be beautiful. And even better that, after years of dropping serious cash at salons to hide the grey, women may be encouraged to embrace the beauty of their natural color. Then they’ll have more funds to spend on fun things, like that bucket-list trip to Hawaii.


Maggie is 87. She lives alone and no longer drives. Her grown children live out of town, and her only regular companion is her grandson Mark who does her grocery shopping and handles her banking. Everyone says how helpful Mark is, but some family members have suspicions.They’ve noticed his new flat screen TV, fancy smartphone and expensive shoes.

When it comes to older people and their relationships, there could be more there than meets the eye. That’s why World Elder Abuse Awareness Day was created. Today, June 15, is a day when people around the world plan activities and wear purple to raise awareness of the abuse, neglect and exploitation of elders.

Here are six facts about elder abuse you may not know:

  1. Over one in 10 elders is affected, but only one in 23 cases are reported.
  2. 90 percent of elder abuse is committed by a family member.
  3. Those over 80 are most likely to be abused.
  4. Risk factors for the abuser include substance abuse, mental health disorders and financial issues.
  5. Financial abuse is the fastest growing form of abuse.
  6. Often, the abuser is the only form of companionship for the abused.

It’s important to raise awareness for this serious problem today by getting involved in World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. But it’s even more important to watch out for the red flags of abuse on the other 364 days of the year. To learn more about elder abuse and how to report it, visit or call 1-800-677-1116.

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.

101 Ways to Follow up:

Salespeople are always asking for more qualified leads. They don’t want to be a nuisance by calling the same people in the lead base over and over again. But since it takes an average of 15-20 touches from initial inquiry to move-in, the existing leads in your database are much farther down the sales pike than the new ones walking in the door. Providing they are qualified, and that they haven’t made a definite yes or no decision, they are active leads that need to be cultivated and advanced through the sales process.

This doesn’t mean just continually calling prospects, especially without an objective or a reason to call. That’s what can make you feel and look like a nuisance. Follow-up does need to be structured, but it also takes creativity and individuality to stand out from your competitors in your prospects’ minds. Make them feel special, understood and cared about, and you will be amazed at the results.

The ideas for following up are limitless. What if you ask a prospect out for coffee at a local coffee shop and then follow up with a thank-you note and a gift card for the coffee shop? Or what if she attends an event at your community with her daughter, and you capture a beautiful photo of the two of them that you frame and drop off for her? Or what if she happens to mention that she likes to watch HGTV, so you pick up an issue of the magazine and mail it to her with a note?

These small gestures do not cost much, and if they further solidify the relationship by showing that you listen and that you care, then they are much more cost-effective than traditional marketing tactics.

Be smart about how you spend your time, effort and money when following up, and let your creative juices flow. You’ll find the follow-up process to be more enjoyable and more effective.

Don’t forget; All of those “I’m not ready yet!” prospects are in your lead base already—and so are your next 5-10 sales.

Looking for creative ways to follow up? Email me at, and I’ll send you my free handout, “101 Ways to Follow up.”


Managing a successful organization has never been easy, but given today’s rapidly evolving changes, the leadership challenge, at least for most of us, is greater than ever.  Pressures from a variety of stakeholder groups compete for our time, attention and resources. More than ever, distractions seem to intercept our good intentions. Results—favorable ones—don’t occur without a plan. Exceptional results happen only when the plan is well executed. Unfortunately, too many of us invest far more time in developing the plan than in managing or executing the plan.

More Than an Exercise

Strategic planning is a discipline that should be logical, practical and manageable. Many of the plans I review these days seemingly lack depth and evoke far too little action. Now that we have adopted the concept of strategic planning, let’s ensure we introduce plans to our teams that produce the desired results.  Planning should become integrated into our patterns of management at all layers of the organization, not simply an exercise for the board and a few select executives.

Missing Components

Two areas of planning I recommend consistently including in your strategic planning process are innovation and culture. Certainly these areas are difficult to articulate, but they are crucial to your success in driving the desired results. Whether you are competing for residents or employees, your ability to establish objectives for enhancing the culture in which your services are delivered creates a competitive advantage. In great work cultures, great ideas can come from any team member in any department. Setting the tone for culture is the foundation to creating a more innovative environment in which people want to contribute.

Monitoring Success

People want to know how their performance stacks up against expectations. Routine reporting on key accomplishments against the plan is often missing beyond the executive suite. Success happens when the entire organization is aware of the strategic plan as well as how they are doing in completing the objectives driven by that plan. Measuring and communicating success is more than simply crafting an email or printing a newsletter. Engaged teams want a personal account from leadership on how well they are achieving the goals for the organization.

Link to Performance

Is your organization performing at its absolute best? Why or why not? Is your strategic plan a living document embraced by your entire organization, or something that occupies space on your shelf only to be discussed at board meetings? Are you winning the “war for talent”—are the brightest people coming to work at your organization?

It is no longer enough to be good at anything—consumer expectations for your brand are high. If your organization is performing at a level that doesn’t create “wowed” customers, your plan needs work, and your executional tactics need attention. The journey of successful strategic planning and organizational performance must get your attention daily.

It’s a good week for “timeless female empowerment.” Blanche, Sophia, Dorothy, Rose, Baddie and Mylie are all in the spotlight.

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At Varsity, we’re major fans of the Golden Girls, and we’ve covered their innovative living situation in a previous blog post. That’s why we’re so excited about the news that a proposed Legos set featuring the groundbreaking ’80s sitcom is moving through the review process. The project, created by longtime “Golden Girls” fan Samuel Hatmaker, has now gathered 10,000 supporters, which means it qualifies for Lego review and has a chance to be produced. The story was all over social media and got picked up by USA Today, TVWeek, Ellen, Huffington Post and other news outlets.

Another ageless female also received a golden opportunity. On April 6, DimepieceLA, a chic street-style fashion brand, announced that 86-year-old grandmother Baddie Winkle will be featured in the new Dimepiece “state of mind” campaign. On the Dimepiece blog, the company announced, “Our brand has always stood for timeless female empowerment and continues to encourage this mindset in our latest campaign.”

Baddie has 745,000 Instagram followers, and one of her biggest admirers is Millennial megastar Miley Cyrus. Miley is such a huge Baddie fan that she photoshopped herself into one of the Dimepiece pool-site fashion shots and posted it on her Instagram page. Here’s to powerful females of all ages.


“Once upon a time…” The phrase takes many of us back to our childhoods. It brings back memories of snuggling under the covers as a parent told us a bedtime story, or sitting cross-legged on the classroom floor as the teacher read out loud. We listened raptly, wondering where the story would take us next. Even as adults, we love stories and the journeys they take us on. It’s stories that grab our attention and keep it.

Consumers love stories, too. They enjoy learning about the history of a company and where it is going next. In college, I learned about the marketing concept “what’s in it for me?” and how important it was to answer that question through storytelling. That was close to 25 years ago, and the idea remains as strong now as it was then.

Our culture has been handed down for centuries through the oral tradition of storytelling. It’s in our nature to tell stories. People love to relate an anecdote when friends ask them about a purchase they’ve made. So, if you share a story about your own product with your customers, you’ll reap the benefits of having it passed on to others. This process is how a good story can grow and develop a life of its own.

Creating a story about your brand is a great way to let your customers know who you are and what you stand for. It’s through this narrative that you gain their interest and, more importantly, their trust. It doesn’t need to be some huge tome, telling them every little thing about your brand. It just needs to be enough to give them a taste, make them want more and, most importantly, help them remember you and your product.

In addition to my career in advertising and marketing, I’ve spent the last 15 years making and selling my own artwork. My customers love to hear the story behind each of my pieces. Even if they don’t buy anything, I tell them the story about my studio name. I can’t tell you how many people come back and say, “I remember you and that interesting story of how your studio got to be called ‘Kerensamere.’”

In this digital age, one might think that storytelling is dead, but that is simply not the case. If anything, storytelling is prevalent in our society now more than ever. Online videos are a great example of storytelling. It’s amazing how one well-crafted video can tell so much in such a brief time. Make it a good one, and it goes viral. Next thing you know, everyone is telling your story for you.

Not everyone is a good storyteller. Back in the Middle Ages, communities relied on bards to come to town and recite stories. Not just anyone could be a bard; it took a certain skill. It’s kind of like the difference between a person who’s good at telling jokes, and one who isn’t. If it’s not told right, the joke falls flat. You don’t want this to happen with your own brand story. That’s where hiring the right team can make all the difference in how well your story is told and retold.

Crafting and presenting your story is a skill that comes with practice and insight. You need to understand your own brand as well as your audience. What is it that you want people to know? How do you get them to care about your story? This is where hiring a team like Varsity comes into play. We pride ourselves in our ability to create brand narratives that tell your story to the people you want to hear it and get them to repeat it for you.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

“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.

I remember visiting my grandparents as a child for two weeks each summer. As I grew older, I watched them transition from their working days to retirement. At that time, the shift towards retirement often meant a slower pace of life, a casual retreat from social circles and carefully budgeted spending. Even though I now value those lazy days sitting on the front porch learning from my grandparents, I didn’t realize that the journey they were on was transforming the experiences they would encounter for years to come. As consumers, my grandparents seemingly became virtually irrelevant to marketers of their day.

Oh, how things have changed. The Boomers are of utmost interest in today’s economy because, in most cases, they approach aging so differently than did their parents. They are active, independent, self-reliant and are positively anticipating the experiences ahead. The first generation to “work hard, play hard” isn’t going to slow down just because its cohorts can start collecting social security.

In my work, I have opportunity to interact almost daily with Boomers who are now at the same life stage that my grandparents were at when I was a young boy. As I listen to Boomers, I’m learning that they see their journey as anything but slow-paced, and they’ll spend a lot along the way, buying about 36 percent of new cars and accounting for 80 percent of all travel expenses. In fact, Boomers are planning to spend more money during retirement than did any generation before them. There’s no doubt about it—the Boomer experience will be different.

Given these dramatic shifts, what are you doing to position your products and services to meet the higher expectations of Boomers? Does your team understand the Boomer mindset? Is your buying process easy to maneuver? Do your organization’s physical assets capitalize on what Boomers value?

In my new role as vice president of planning and performance at Varsity, I help companies answer questions like these. By carefully evaluating your people, processes and property, we uncover opportunities to create a buying experience that resonates with today’s demanding Boomer audience.

If you would like a planning and performance assessment or have a particular challenge you would like to discuss, please email me at

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.

It looks like Boomers and a growing number of seniors are becoming fully entrenched in online media. Although they still trail their younger cohorts, this year alone, 71% of those aged 50-64 and 59% over 65 have used at least one social networking site (Facebook still rules) compared with 26% in 2010 and 1% in 2008. They also love online video sites (Winner: YouTube), and 77% are using their mobile device simultaneously with “second screens.”

But as we discovered through our most recent research, those stats are only part of the story. Check out the infographic below to see what media types they’re using, and how much time they’re actually spending there.

Infographic: A Media-Hungry Mature Market Shifts Their Appetite

MARKETING INSIGHT: We’re seeing a ton of content around the mature market and their relationship with the shifting technology and media landscape – from the downright informative to the just plain condescending. But as more Americans shift their media consumption habits, brands must also retool their content marketing strategies to satisfy prospects’ needs. On the technology side, device manufacturers need to keep access and usage top-of-mind, while on the marketing side, content producers should be cognizant of practicality and relevance.

*Source: Google & Ipsos MediaCT, “Reaching Today’s Boomers and Seniors Online,” May 1, 2013


The Varsity Team

 “Next Generations” Still Think Communities are Unprepared for the Aging Tidal WaveWe’re not referring to retirement communities, but rather the actual towns, cities and suburbs that are facing an aging tidal wave, and are still woefully unprepared to meet the needs of the growing senior population. A large number of older adults and around half of adults under the age of 60 still believe the areas where they currently reside have few to no preparations in place for the future, according to a new survey released by the National Council on Aging (NCOA).

The new survey, produced by NCOA, UnitedHealthcare and USA Today, showed that seniors have maintained a positive outlook in terms of their future and the aging process in general. When it comes to their health, most express little concern about their current health status, and not surprisingly, many report not investing in activities that are important to help manage their health for the long-term.

On the financial front, most seniors surveyed expressed a comfort level with their current financial situation, but are somewhat concerned about the financial impact of living longer. More than half of respondents (53%) said they are concerned about whether their savings and income will last the rest of their lives, while 33% were not concerned.

Both retirees and those retiring in the near future intend to rely on Social Security as their main source of income, shown in the survey as 43% and 41% respectively. Nearly 19% reported difficulty in affording living expenses, based on their current income and savings.

Community support was another issue altogether. Most seniors (71%) agree their community is “responsive to the needs of seniors.” But only around 30% of people aged 60 and older don’t believe the community is prepared to meet the future needs of an aging population, and a full 45% of those 18-49 don’t believe communities will be prepared to meet those needs at all.

Friends and family remain constants: seniors also say that staying connected with family and friends is important to maintaining a high quality of life.

You can read the executive summary report from The United States of Aging Survey here.

MARKETING INSIGHT: As far back as 2005, aging population studies were showing that while many communities have some programs to address the needs of an aging population, very few have a comprehensive assessment of what it would take to make their community “elder friendly.”

That’s also reflected in the retirement living industry, where there’s currently a major gap between family expectations and changing resident needs, and an industry completely unprepared for the “next generations.”

There needs to be a better way to educate the public on planning for the future, about their living accommodations and unexpected illnesses that are sure to increase as the population ages. Likewise, smart communities and the retirement living industry will need to find ways to inform their current residents – of all ages – on what products and services are available to help them, and how to access them. Click here for a “community checklist,” courtesy of


The Varsity Team

Boomer and Senior Healthy Eating Moves to the Snack Aisle Here’s good news for Boomers and seniors who like to snack: Apparently, you’re increasingly looking for items that help you stay healthy and active – something we uncovered in our own research, and now verified by the food manufacturing industry.

Milk producer Fonterra North America studied the snacking habits of more than 600 healthy Americans between ages 50 and 75 and found that more than half believe the ability to stay active has a greater impact on their health than their weight, although 30% also said they already have weight issues.

Fonterra also found two extremely polarized schools of thought when it came to those cravings. At one end of the spectrum, a large number of “unwavering indulgers” knows they have health issues and shouldn’t pick up that Twinkie, but they do it anyway. On the other end are three snacking segments who are active and willing to make real changes in their diet to stay healthy:

  • Active Seekers (16%) – They’re the active, nutrition conscious ones who are more than willing to make changes to their diet for health benefits. Think 70 year-old marathon runners.
  • Health Seekers (22%) – Not quite as active, but generally follow healthy trends and are willing to make some dietary changes. Think on-again-off-again dieters.
  • Open-minded Moderates (20%) – They’re the followers and are somewhat health-conscious but don’t have the discipline to keep up with a health program. They also try to eat well, but aren’t always able to. We’re surprised this percentage isn’t higher.

In general, Boomer consumers are looking for products higher in protein, and adding high-quality dairy protein to foods they’re already eating will be the easiest way to drive consumption. The meal most lacking protein and posing the greatest opportunities? Breakfast.

MARKETING INSIGHT: Manufacturers and commercial foodservices marketers, take note: Since this demographic is split on the benefit of taking pills, your industry will no doubt become the solution to some of these issues and trends as many would prefer to ensure their health through their diets. For those of you in the senior living industry, now is probably a good time to introduce healthy snacking options and education into your foodservice or wellness programs.

After years of excess in the realm of food, mature consumers have common concerns, and are taking a stand to control their diets. And as more and more people in this demographic continue their careers and postpone retirement, their reliance on unconventional, mobile-friendly meals and snacks will only increase.


The Varsity Team

seniors driving Last year, automakers were reporting that “older” consumers were making up the lion’s share of new car buyers. Apparently, they didn’t believe their own numbers, as a new study shows that that same cohort is still buying more new cars than the 35- to 44-year-old age group, who were most likely to buy four years ago.

So who’s responsible? You guessed it. The Boomers who refuse to age, and apparently, refuse to give up their car keys. According to a new study by the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute, the 55 to 64-year-old age group, or older Boomers, has now become the demographic most likely to buy a new car.

The study found that those consumers had the highest rate of vehicle purchases in 2011, while the youngest age groups had the lowest rate. Even consumers age 75 and above bought cars at a higher rate than 25 to 34-year-olds and 18 to 24-year-olds.

Industry insiders believe that one of the main reasons behind the numbers is that people are staying in the workforce longer, and thus remaining in the automotive market longer as well. Today, most Boomers live in the suburbs and expect to age in place in their homes, or are stuck in larger homes whose values have fallen. Driving is viewed as the key to independence and even self-worth. Given their propensity to remain independent, the next 20 years will see the number of U.S. drivers over 70 triple.

From a marketing perspective, auto manufacturers have been throwing good money after bad, spending billions to try to reach Generation Y and younger consumers – who are not driving as frequently or in as great numbers as the Boomers.

“You shouldn’t be chasing the younger people, you should be looking at the older people,” Michael Sivak, author of the study, told Bloomberg. “Boomers are trying to extend their youth as long as they can, both in terms of taking care of their bodies and in their expenditures.”

Sivak notes that automakers are having to rethink marketing to older drivers, who are no longer content to buy a large luxury sedan and drive it for 20 years. A good point is, however, that Boomers are not their parents’ generation. They expect to continue working and driving long into their later years. The challenge here is for automakers to develop models that cater to the specific needs of this aging population, without alienating them or younger cohorts.

MARKETING INSIGHT: The aging of one of the country’s largest generations will have a lasting impact on the automotive market.

There’s opportunity here for automakers to roll out more compact and affordable models that specifically meet Boomer needs. As Boomers age they increase the amount of participation in daily sport and leisure activities. With more Boomers working longer and having larger household sizes than previous generations, fuel efficient, compact vehicles, which maximize passenger and cargo capacity, may be an attractive purchase for this still relatively wealthy cohort.

For the senior living sector, it could mean providing more facilities to accommodate automobiles for those who continue to work and remain behind the wheel. In our research, Boomers looking at current CCRCs were turned off by the dearth of resident parking, and the absence of covered parking.

For local and state municipalities, this could mean investing in public transit and new roadways, and promoting the building of compact, walkable and mixed-use communities that minimize the need to drive as their residents age.