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Did Developers Badly Miscalculate How, Where Seniors Want To Live?

Lombard Place Assisted Living and Memory Care, 300 West 22nd St., Lombard, Ill.

As more new senior housing is delivered every year, more evidence piles up that the generation expected to move into it has other ideas.

The oldest members of the baby boomer generation — those born in 1946 — are 73 years old, and the commercial real estate industry has been building in anticipation of the "silver tsunami" aging into assisted living for years now. But at the same time, technology is being developed to make it easier than ever for seniors to "age in place," The Wall Street Journal reports.

Some advancements have come through home design, with major firms like Gensler bringing products like adjustable sinks and ground-floor living rooms that can convert to bedrooms in the future, the WSJ reports. Others have come through smart home technology and the Internet of Things, like voice-activate technology that can both stimulate a senior resident and pass along information to healthcare providers.

Even before such technology becomes ubiquitous, the average age at which a person moves into senior living is steadily rising, from 82 years in 2014 to 84 or 85 today, according to Green Street Advisors data reported by the WSJ. At the same time, the pace of new deliveries in senior housing has doubled since 2014, with a new high of over 21,000 units in 2018.

Average senior housing occupancy rates have been gradually declining over that same time frame, from a peak of 90.2% in 2014 to 88% in Q3 of this year, according to a National Investment Center for Senior Housing & Care study reported by the WSJ

Though the population of people who need more constant assistance and medical care will inevitably rise, demographic studies have shown that baby boomers will live independently for as long as they can, and investment in industries making that easier is growing rapidly, the WSJ reports.

A rendering of Dranoff Properties' Arthaus 47-story condo building towering over the Kimmel Center across South Broad Street

Another possible factor that may keep boomers from moving into all the senior housing being built? They are already on the move — into new-construction, market-rate apartments. 

Although millennials are most commonly associated with the ongoing population shift into dense urban cores, baby boomers have been a far more influential demographic in that regard, a recent Urban Land Institute report found. In the past 10 years, urban populations in the U.S. have grown by 4.9 million in the 20 to 29 age bracket and 10.3 million in the 55 to 64 range.

The empty nesters who shed homeownership in favor of urban apartments also are more likely to have the income required to move into amenity-rich, Class-A apartments, real estate consultant John Burns told Curbed. Such modern units may be best-suited for adapting to an aging resident's changing needs.

It will still be a few years before a critical mass of baby boomers reach an age where senior housing is traditionally considered, according to Green Street Advisors. But the world is changing the terms of those considerations, perhaps faster than the development community anticipated.