Dispatches From the Senior Living Front

Before I went to the LeadingAge Texas annual conference this year in Dallas, I noted on LinkedIn that it had been two years since my last LAT conference (2019).  That conference was like one unbroken celebration of endless possibilities. On LinkedIn, I said I was  both excited and incredibly curious about what would seem the same and what would seem different, on this side of the pandemic chasm.

After reflecting these past several weeks, I wanted to share some of that experience. It spoke volumes to me but I have only a few paragraphs to share with you. You can fill in the blanks.

The first thing I noticed at LAT 2022 was that there was an air of seriousness—everyone seemed more intent on the business aspects of the conference; sessions and serious networking. There were fewer creative marketing types there but plenty of decision makers. Part of that may have to do with Austin being more of a free spirit setting than Dallas. But I think it had more to do with a deep sense of challenge to economic viability across the board—a new climate of challenge born of unceasing adversity to our industry since early 2020.

Then, we had a massive unknown pandemic beginning to break out with seemingly no end in sight. Dark and, sad to say, deadly, days lay ahead. While these dark clouds have lifted substantially, we all still carry the scars, fatigue and worry of it. But now we also see the specters of surging inflation, raging fuel prices, supply chain interruptions and a haywire staffing climate. All of these things have combined to create an atmosphere of uncertainty—both for aging consumers and their adult children, and by extension, our own business models.

I spoke to several folks whose opinion I valued. I paid attention in the sessions. I heard many of the same things: there is a growing complexity in achieving profitable margins. You have to build reliable outcomes by sensing where things could go off the rails. Savvy beats smart.

My sense is that the senior living industry must lean into the deep experience of those who have “seen it all” and know the work arounds, the Plan Bs, the trick plays—those  brilliant innovators that can leap frog over obstacles at a single bound. They are the “can do” people who always seem to find a way to win. They can do it because they’ve paid their dues, over many years. They have the savvy, the connections, and a million favors they can call in for you.

Age and experience trumps change because, as King Solomon wrote, there is nothing new under the sun. You just have to have been around early enough to see change before it disguised itself as something new and unfathomable.

I do marvel at fresh youth and enthusiasm, but I tip my hat to wisdom born of a persistent character in facing “new” challenges every day, for decades. The “OGs” are in still in business because they kept learning—and listening to the OGs before them. Conferences like LAT are a great place to meet with them and pick their brains.

It’s good to remember that our residents have seen it all before too: global pandemics and financial collapse, world war, economic pandemonium and social unrest. If we asked them, I think they would all whisper: this too shall pass.

I believe that is true as well, especially if we’re taking cues from those who fought the good fight in senior living and have the scars to prove it.

On a more esoteric note, while I saw deep concern etched in the faces of my colleagues, I saw something else in their eyes: hope and courage. The glint of recognition and smile that fell across their faces when we met at LAT reminded me of the things that really matter—loving and respecting others.  I was also impressed that we pass this way only once, and we should affirm our respect and love for our colleagues every chance we get—especially the Savvy Ones.

One day, we’ll look for them, and they won’t be there.

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