Leadership Senior Living

Reflecting on MLK Day and the Path to Diversity in Senior Living

Brian CareyBy Brian Carey, President, Senior Living

Nearly 58 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. In it, he imagined a world where people of all races would live together in harmony and unity — a world that, in many ways, we’re still grasping for in 2021.

As a Black man and a leader in the senior living industry, it’s impossible to overlook the gap between Dr. King’s dream and the current state of senior living. While we’ve come so far and ought to celebrate our achievements, we must simultaneously embrace the challenges ahead.

Looking Ahead to a More Diverse World

Right now, 76% of Americans over the age of 65 identify as White non-Hispanic. By 2060, the AARP Public Policy Institute estimates that number will drop to 57%.

As recently as 2018, researchers found that 95% of independent living residents were Caucasian. Yet, the people who serve these residents carry a much more diverse profile, with 51% identifying as Caucasian, 25% African American, 17% Hispanic, and 4% Asian.

What do all these numbers mean?

For our communities to thrive in the future, we will need to embrace more diverse traditions and progress beyond implementing training seminars on diversity and inclusion. We must learn how to provide a welcoming environment that attracts and delights seniors from various backgrounds and cultural traditions.

The mistake I fear many organizations will make is waiting until the last possible moment to react to the shifting demographics. Instead, we need to address diversity proactively, taking the initiative to understand the diverse cultures embedded in our local communities.

A proactive approach will guide our decisions about the food we serve, the holidays we celebrate, and the languages we accommodate for. If you want your organization to achieve long-term growth and success, the time to start addressing these things is now.

Navigating Today’s Context to Arrive at Tomorrow’s Dream

While we need to be proactive, we also need to understand there is no quick and easy way to achieve diversity. While there are actions we can take today, we need to approach them with a contextual perspective of the long road ahead.

Embracing diversity requires careful navigation of the current dynamic at play in senior living communities.

The diversity of staff often differs significantly from the demographics of residents — and even executive leadership. This gap leads to, in many cases, an unintentional disconnect between the values of staff and residents.

Community administrators will concede that managing conflict and residents’ complaints absorbs a significant portion of their time. It is essential to understand how differences can inadvertently lead to discontinuity and disharmony in our communities where the support team does not share the same cultural background or cultural priorities as the residents they serve.  

The solution needs to come from the top down. Executives need to establish a set of values that the entire organization leads with across all of its operations. 

Rather than reacting to trends and treading water to keep up, we have the opportunity to create environments of trust that appeal to diverse populations and open the door to new business opportunities and sustained success.

The Lessons of 2020 and Hope for 2021

2020 stretched people’s capacity for compassion. The pandemic, social unrest, and the turmoil of an election year have stressed the very core of our communities. 

Seniors are some of the most vulnerable within our population. That was true even before COVID-19, but it’s becoming increasingly evident. This past year has reminded me of the importance of compassion in the way we do business. The most important thing we can do is seek to be the best individuals we can be. 

My hope for 2021 is that we lead with the values most meaningful to us, with diversity being one of the most important. It’s not just good business. It’s what the world needs right now. 

There is still progress to be made in achieving Dr. King’s dream. By understanding the upcoming shift in demographics and carefully navigating the current context, our senior living communities can become pictures to the world around us of just how fruitful striving toward that dream can be.