NIMBY Memory Care

I recently worked with a developer on a new memory care community located in a prestigious area in the mid-Atlantic.  The community is smaller, but very well designed and upscale.  The architectural firm we’re working with is experienced and highly awarded for this type of community.  As the operations consultant I can attest that the programs and services will be innovative and well designed.   Financing is in place and we’re ready to roll!

But wait, not so fast. 

The surrounding neighbors aren’t having it.  They’ve organized into a very strong, vocal opposition party, retained legal counsel and they’re savvy enough to be placing tremendous political pressure on local government agencies to kill the project.  Why?

This location was identified because of a demonstrable need for memory care services – in fact, many of the city’s officials acknowledged this and invited new development.  So why would the surrounding neighbors – some of which would be likely to place loved ones here - be opposed to this?

The HOA meetings were heated as our development team locked horns with the neighborhood association.  This was not the intention, but passion was present in abundance at these meetings.  We tried to allay the fears and concerns the opposition was presenting, but our answers were not accepted – their position was clearly already baked-in – and these meetings did nothing to bring the parties closer together.

The concerns included there being: too much noise from ambulances coming and going at all times of the day and night – sirens blaring; confused residents walking the sidewalks and streets unattended; the courtyard being too small to hold all the residents at the same time; inadequate parking for residents and staff - even though none of the residents would be driving; and “secured care” was a akin to placing the elderly residents in a “pen.”  There were other objections, but you get the idea. 

The process moved on to meetings with the city, petitions, protests, attorneys, etc. Months went by.  In the end, the results were in favor of the project, although no one on either side was feeling warm and fuzzy about it.

Is a small memory care community seen as a having a negative impact on property values?  I did some quick research and found that generally the answer is “no.”  In fact, there is some evidence that this type of community in the immediate area can have a positive effect on property values.  With the continued growth in the senior population, having a place nearby for parents to live, is seen as an added value.

So why then, in this day and age, with the broad awareness of the greying of America, would there still be a “Not in My Back Yard (NIMBY)” reaction?

Is there still a perception that today’s senior living communities are comparable to the skilled care community of the 1970s?  Is it more of an “out of sight, out of mind” reaction that we don’t want to be reminded of reality of aging and the inevitability of our parents (and or own) mortality?  Or is it something else?

35 years ago, my own grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.  At that time, our only alternative was to place her in a state skilled care community.  I’m embarrassed to admit that I dreaded going to visit her, and avoided doing so.  The facility was older, smelled terrible and most of its residents were either wheelchair or bed bound.  There was an overwhelming sense of decay and death – no life, no activity, no energy. 

I know that many of today’s skilled care communities are so much better – but this was my experience years ago.  A perception that stayed with me for years.

34 years ago I started my journey into senior living with the goal helping to design, build and operate environments that I would have loved to have had available for my grandmother.  Looking back over the span of my career, I believe as an industry we’ve done that – and we’re not finished yet!  We’re still evolving, innovating and disrupting the old ways of doing things, and we’re just now beginning to embrace and integrate technology into our communities.  I’m proud of who we are, what we have done over the past 3 decades.  Think about how far we’ve come!

In fact, if someone wants to build a senior community near our house – bring it on!  I can’t wait to volunteer there!

Hello, How May I Discourage You Today?

Ridiculous, isn’t it?  To think of those words as something your front desk staff would use when answering the phone or greeting a visitor?  But that’s the essence of what they may be saying, unless you’ve spent time and energy coaching them, and awakening them to the reality that they are indeed on the sales team.

I was recently doing some work for an upscale senior living community in Colorado.  When I arrived, I was significantly underwhelmed with my welcome.  The lack of attention and personality from the receptionist was memorable (we’ll call her Rosie).  After chalking it up to Rosie having an “off” day, I moved about my business, but as the days went by I observed this lackluster greeting repeatedly.  Not necessarily rude, but far from exuding the warm, welcoming tone that we should expect from our staff – and certainly from our “Directors of First Impressions.”   

After several days of observing this, “Hello-what-do-you-want?” and “Why-are-you-bothering-me?” attitude manifesting itself in poise, tone and language, I reached my breaking point.  “We have to conduct training for our front desk, staff…really…like now.” 

I began by making “friends” with Rosie (I’m good at that).  You know, the old, “they won’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care” approach.  Always works like a box of lucky charms.  After a few hours, I discovered that I really liked Rosie; I also like all the Winnie the Pooh characters, I just wouldn’t put Eeyore at the front desk.

Despite Rosie being dependable, great at filing and keeping order amidst the orchestrated chaos of the position, the negativity she exuded was enough to make a Ken Blanchard weep openly – and loudly.  As you may have guessed, the residents loved this person.  I realized that this fondness was due to Rosie’s tendency to wear her heart on her sleeve – a sleeve that was not typically attired appropriately, but we’ll save that for another time.  Rosie loved to discuss her personal problems with residents.  These front desk rap sessions were cathartic for her and they were terrific fodder for the resident rumor mill – win-win!   “Did you hear about Rosie’s daughter?  She ran off again with that awful boyfriend of hers.  This time to Vegas.”  “Oh, my, how is Rosie handling it?”  And so on (don’t lie, you want to know too).

So after I was firmly seen by Rosie as “a good suit” (yeah, there are good ones and bad ones) I began coaching her, confident that she would soon care about what I know.  But Rosie wasn’t having it.  She wasn’t game, and flat out refused to engage in any form of role play whatsoever.  After several days of trying, I became convinced that Rosie was just not going to change the way she performed her job.  Period.  Just more of the same, "Good morning, Pooh Bear…If it is a good morning…although I doubt," (try saying it with your best Eeyore voice).

One afternoon, after several attempts to convince the Director that a change had to made, my point became all too clear.  We were in the Business Manager’s office within earshot of the front desk when a call came in.  I noticed Rosie opening and closing drawers and rifling through papers for several minutes, until she stepped into the office.  “How much do we charge for a one-bedroom?”  We stopped talking.  The Director responded with the price and Rosie, satisfied with the answer, turned and started off.  “Wait, Why?” I asked.  “Oh, someone’s just on the phone asking.”  Fortunately the ED shouted, “Transfer the call to me!”

Unfortunately, the next sound we heard was Eeyore lethargically responding, “Never mind, they hung up…oh well.”  No phone number, no name…just dial tone.

Shortly afterwards, the Director directed Rosie onto a new career path. 

It’s so difficult and expensive to get that phone to ring with a potential prospect, and it’s so easy to lose them.   Do you want Eeyore answering?

“What day is it?"

It's today," squeaked Piglet.

My favorite day," said Pooh.”

― A.A. Milne


Or Winnie the Pooh?

Marketing and Sales Lessons from Sam I am

“I will not move into your community, for it is exactly the place I do not wish to be!”

How many time have you read Dr. Seuss’s classic, Green Eggs and Ham?  If you’re anything like me, and have kids, dozens if not hundreds.  And yet, not until recently were my eyes opened to the marketing and sales lessons contained within this masterpiece of persistence.

For the uncultured - and therefore, unfortunate – among us who have yet to lose themselves in the madcap world of Sam I am and the culinary brilliance that is green eggs and ham, allow me to recap.  This classic Seuss book is the fourth largest selling children’s book of all time; and yet – like so many of the works of Theodor Seuss Geisel – there are hidden jewels of profound wisdom and truths sprinkled throughout the seemingly simple but colorful parables.

I recently met with a colleague who opened my eyes to one such truth contained in the pages of this classic which chronicles the kind but purposeful persistence of Sam I am, in his quest to have his “prospect” try his oddly-hued breakfast offering.  My colleague, a marketing professional, took me aback by engaging me in a bit of Seuss trivia. 

“How many times did Sam I am ask his prospect to try his green eggs and ham before he succeeded?”

 “Umm, like…10?  No 20?” 

“Actually, he asked 88 times. I counted them.”

She then presented me with a copy of the book, with each of Sam’s “asks” marked with a green highlighter.  Sandra takes her Seuss seriously! 

Sure enough, Sam had the perseverance and dedication to ask 88 times.  This reminded me of a statistic I recently heard on the radio:  consumers making large purchasing decisions on average do not decide to buy until the 8th time they are asked.  Ironically, most salespeople never ask for the close more than 3-4 times.  Makes you wonder who’s getting your closes, doesn’t it? 

I have to admit that I often saw the story of Green Eggs and Ham as one of Sam wearing down his target.  Pestering him into submission.  But as it was pointed out to me, Sam is always kind.  He’s always polite, never becomes discouraged, and he always offers “options.” 

“Would you eat them in a box?  Would you eat them with a fox?  On a train?  In a plane?  With a mouse?  In a house?”  And always…Sam asks with a gentle smile. 

The really cool thing about the story is that in the end (spoiler alert) the target of Sam’s query does in fact try them…and he loves them.  In fact, he absolutely adores them!  In the final act of Sam’s culinary quest, his prospect thanks Sam profusely, for his persistence.  You see, had Sam not been as determined to have his prospect simply “try” the dish, he’d have never realized just how much he enjoyed green eggs and ham.  He would have missed out on one of life’s pleasures, but for the kind tenacity of Sam.

Certainly it would have been easier for Sam to stop asking after 4 or 5 times; and who could blame him, after all, repeated rejection itself can be difficult to swallow.  Eighty-Eight times until Sam got the close.  How many times do you ask?

So take this lesson from Sam I am,

Kind persistence is no sham…

And in the end you very well may,

Find success and make someone’s day.


A Commentary on the Perils of Large Senior Housing Management Companies

Senior Housing Management Companies provide a valuable and necessary service for ownership groups – particularly for those who have limited experience operating independent, assisted living or memory care environments.  But management companies can be a difficult beast to train as it grows, and make no mistake that those difficulties can come at the expense of ownership groups – and no one is asking the right questions.

Asking Questions

Look at this through the scope of what we know about community level operations.  Do we not encourage consumers (residents and family members) to ask the following types of questions? 

  • How many caregivers do you employee?

  • How many residents do you assign per caregiver?

  • At what point will you add more caregivers to ensure mom is still receiving the care and services she’s receiving today, and for which we are paying?

As someone who has worked for and with these entities, I would suggest to ownership groups these are the same types of questions you – as the consumer – should be asking. 

Over-promising and under delivering can be the Achilles heel for any community in our industry during the sales process – it is the same pitfall in a broader arena when considering the value an owner receives when contracting with someone to manage their property.

  • How many regional staff will be assigned to my community?

  • How many communities is each one of these folks assigned?

  • At what point will you add regional support to ensure my community will continue to receive the attention for which we are paying?

Additional consideration should be focused on how wide is the geography being serviced by a company’s “regions,” “districts” or “divisions.”  How much time is the team assigned to support my property spending on planes, trains and automobiles - traveling not only to and from my community but to other assigned communities.

Every company desires growth – in size, profitability, market share, etc.  With a management company, there must be a careful balance of growth and adding additional resources to manage that growth.  The expense cannot outpace – or even keep pace – with the additional management fees it is collecting to manage additional properties.  Thus, increasing pressure is placed on the management company to have its team do more and more without the addition of resources.    

A large variety of product types, multiple ownership groups and mixing managed, leased and owned communities can place a management company in difficult positons when deciding what priorities and resources to assign to different communities.  Of particular concern is what level of priority a management company will assign to “its own” communities on a regular basis (much less when there is a problem at one of them) versus one that is simply under a management contract. 

An Inside Glimpse

Inside many companies is the awareness and expectation that some ownership groups expect a disproportionate (and sometimes unrealistic) amount of time and energy.  Not in all cases, but in the vast majority of my experience, this is not an opinion but a fact.  And the truth is, if you were paying $6,000 to $10,000 (or 4-6% of your gross revenue) or more for someone to manage your community, wouldn’t you expect value in the form of time and attention? 

The reality is that the larger the management company becomes (assuming profitability is the goal) the less time it has to spend on each individual community.  The strategy then becomes to give owners the “perception” that they are receiving a higher percentage the management company’s time, attention and resources than is the reality. 

Managing owner expectations becomes as important as is actually accomplishing the work.

Over the last 3 decades I have heard no substantive disagreement here.  It is obvious to anyone who has worked with or within these entities that you can never meet all ownership group’s expectations, but as growth occurs priorities shift and resources do thin out.

Of course I have been privileged to know one or two companies that do a tremendous job for owners – particularly when the number of ownership groups being serviced is purposely kept to a manageable number.  However, as additional opportunities for new contracts arise, the temptation to grow the business and profitability at the expense of providing optimal service to an existing ownership group increases.

As this organic dilution occurs, it is obviously not publicized.  Consider the first contract for a management company; the ownership is paying a fixed management fee of $10K, and receives great value for this.  The management company grows to 10 communities – is owner #1 still receiving $10K worth of service or has value been diluted.  Does the management company reduce its monthly fee to owner #1?  Assuming all communities having equal needs, why not? 

I have also witnessed countless incidents where one troubled asset – or group of assets (communities) can easily absorb 80-90% of a management team’s time and resource – and these situations rise and subside like the tide, changing the workloads and resources available to service the other ownership entities.  As an owner would you be alright receiving less time and resource because another owner’s community is “on fire” (let’s assume that was a metaphor). 

A People Problem

At the center of this dilemma are the folks working for the management company.  As a company grows and takes on contracts, its resources become thinned out.  Some ownership groups are more involved and may place more pressure than others.  Remember the squeaky wheel?  Well not all wheels squeak equally and there’s only so much oil to go around. 

The people working for management companies (and there are a lot of great ones) are pressured to stretch, can become tired, fatigued and frustrated by their inability to “keep everyone happy.”  Don’t lose the contact – manage the expectations.

And again, don’t discount the erosion of an individual’s effectiveness by the amount of time they are spending at airports, on airplanes, in driving rental cars.

Ownership entities would be wise to carefully scrutinize what percentage of a management company’s time and resource it is receiving.  And this type of review should be done routinely as a management company grows.

There are some simple, but illuminating metrics that can and should be checked periodically to ensure that an ownership group (the consumer) is receiving the value for which it is paying.

To paraphrase a commercial for an investment firm in which a dad is counseling his son on investing:

“Do you get a refund if you’re not satisfied with performance?”

“No, of course not.”

“Why not?

“That’s not the way it’s done.”

“Why not?”


What's in a Name?

Friends often ask why I named my company SDG Senior Living. Inevitably they'll start guessing at what the abbreviation stands for. "Is it Senior Design Group?" "Is it Seattle Development Growth?" "Is it Smart Dashing Guy?" (OK, no one has guess that last one, but they were thinking it). Of course the answer to all three is "no."

The day I decided to go legit, I was consulting with my start up team (OK, it was the Legal Zoom Website). I went through all the combination using words like "Senior, housing, living, compassion, care, assisted living, etc." and of course - like every good entrepreneur - then began to add my name with forgettable outputs like, "Gonzales Senior Services (GSS)," "John's Eldercare Consulting (JEC)" and others far worse. After discerning my "team's" impatience with me as evidenced by seeing messages like, "Are you still there?" and "Your session is about to time out," I had an epiphany.

I realized that I was going about this all wrong. I mean, how often do you have the opportunity to name a company? A name that will show up on websites and business cards and brochures is a responsibility not to be taken lightly. The only thing I can think of that compares is maybe having a star named after yourself, or deciding on your child's name. My two daughters, Cholera and Moonblood, will attest to this. Hi kids!

OK, seriously, I wanted to make sure I was able to come up with a company name that was meaningful and maybe even provided a catalyst to engage in conversation that serve a greater purpose than garnering business.

Years ago I learned that composers including Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handal among others would write these three letters (representing a three word phrase) at the end of many of their compositions. Three words, Soli Deo Gloria (abbreviated S. D. G.) have meaning in Latin as follows: Soli is the singular of the adjective "lone" or "sole"; the singular Deo, meaning "God"; and Gloria is the nominative case of "glory," or "gloria". Soli Deo Gloria is usually translated as "Glory to God Alone." but some translate it "Glory to the Only God."

I've had a plaque on my desk for years. The simple inscription is from Proverbs, and says, "Commit Thy Works unto the Lord." Everything in heaven and on earth is the Lord's and naming the company SDG is a reminder to me of the small part I play in His story, and every business card I hand out motivates me to represent His company in only the most ethical and honest way that I can. It has also had the unexpected benefit of releasing me from worry about the business. I just need to do the best job that I can, the Owner makes all the "big" decisions.