Senior Resource Group (SRG) has implemented new evidence-based wellness offerings, announced a new program to reduce hospital readmissions, joined a virtual reality research project, and helped launch a new effort related to Medicare Advantage — all in the past 12 months.
But CEO Michael Grust isn’t calling this a new chapter for the Solana Beach, California-based senior living provider. Instead, it’s a continuation of what the company has always quietly done since its founding in 1988.
“We’ve always been under the radar,” Grust told Senior Housing News. “This is a commitment to evolving as a company and programmatically raising the bar across the board.”
As part of these multifaceted initiatives the company is rolling out some forward-thinking concepts at its 32 communities across the U.S., such as a push into plant-based dining.
This focus on wellness, technology and in some cases clinical outcomes is aimed at meeting the rapidly changing preferences of the industry’s next generation of senior living residents, and in the process attract older adults to move out of their homes before they need to.
“If we’re going to grow as an industry, we need to appeal to a wide range of residents, not just … the need-driven people moving into retirement communities,” Grust said. “Programming and engagement, we think, are what differentiates senior living.”
SRG is growing, with one community slated to open soon in Austin, Texas. Looking ahead, the company may add an average of up to two communities per year, though that depends on a variety of market and industry factors, Grust said.
‘A real competitive differentiator’
One program that exemplifies the way SRG sees the future of senior living is Zest, the evidence-based wellness initiative it rolled out in 2017. The program seeks to measure and improve residents’ quality of life, minimize age-related declines and maintain their activities of daily living.
Zest focuses on three three fundamental areas of wellness: mind, body and soul. Under Zest, residents can take part in fitness classes, lifelong learning seminars, laughter yoga, aromatherapy, gardening classes and music therapy.
Among the newest additions under the Zest umbrella is FreshZest, a nutrition program that encourages residents to incorporate more plant-based foods into their diets.
SRG isn’t the only provider serving more veggies and less meat, but its new program is unique in that it’s using data and scientific evidence, not just consumer trends, to inform how and what residents eat.
FreshZest is based on mounting scientific evidence which shows that eating less animal products and more plants can affect a wide variety of conditions that senior living residents face, like obesity and rheumatoid arthritis. In fact, every component of the Zest wellness program is based on measurable evidence, according to Dr. Sarah Matyko, who joined SRG a year ago hired to spearhead the wellness initiative as director of life enrichment.
“The baby boomer generation cares more about wellness than any other generation,” Matyko told SHN. “So, it’s a real competitive differentiator.”
Under FreshZest, residents can dine on vegetable stir-fry with tofu and barley, cauliflower steaks, veggie burgers, stuffed avocados, pad thai spaghetti squash and “power bowls” packed with grains, diced watermelon, carrots, green onion, tomato, parsley and lemon-tahini dressing.
Residents are also still free to peruse the normal menu, which includes all of the food one might find in any senior living community.
Getting residents to eat healthier isn’t as easy as telling them to do so. SRG has encouraged healthier habits in more subtle ways, like leaving vegetarian- and vegan-friendly cookbooks where residents can see them and making certain menu items look “a little prettier” in order to make them stand out.
“For our corporate marketing team, there’s a fine balance between promoting all the benefits of plant-based eating and being prescriptive or turning the prospects off that don’t want to be told to eat plant-based,” Matyko said.
Residents aren’t the only ones that stand to gain from Zest. SRG also offers wellness benefits for its employees through a Zest mobile app and by offering FreshZest fare to them for just $2.50 per meal.
Not all of SRG’s reasoning is scientific. The company also senses a wider shift among consumers regarding what they’re willing to buy and eat.
“Burger King is now offering plant-based burgers,” Matyko said. “The fact that they’re offering plant-based food tells us that consumers are requesting a lot more plant based meals, and we wanted to be ahead of the curve.”
‘Refine and grow’
While the Zest wellness program was initially rolled out in 2017, the last few weeks have seen a flurry of new announcements from SRG.
These recently announced initiatives at SRG include the study with virtual reality company Rendever. The research is funded by the National Institute on Aging (NIA), a division of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and was just announced on Sept. 18.
SRG has agreed to let Boston-based Rendever use its VR tech with residents experiencing some form of cognitive decline in two of its assisted living communities. Those residents will participate in VR sessions with their adult children who live at a distance in an effort to study how the technology can enhance their family relationships.
Using Rendever, residents at those assisted living communities and their adult children who live elsewhere will don VR headsets and share a virtual reality experience together. Throughout the experience, residents and their loved ones can communicate by voice and through “avatar-based interactions,” Rendever said.
Two other recently announced initiatives are Assure, a coordinated care program to reduce rehospitalizations, and a separate collaboration with CareMore, an affiliate of insurer Anthem (NYSE: ANTM).
Under Assure, SRG works with hospitals and discharge planners to reduce rehospitalizations in part by sharing resident health information, helping with medication management or rehab services and coordinating a follow-up appointment in the first seven days after a hospital discharge.
The CareMore collaboration is driving toward the same goals of reduced hospitalizations, increased care coordination, and longer length of stay. CareMore deploys interdisciplinary teams of clinicians, such as physicians and nurse practitioners, into people’s homes — including senior living communities — to provide more rapid and coordinated services. Payment comes from health plans, including but not limited to Anthem’s institutional special needs plans that are designed for people residing in senior housing and care settings.
CareMore is working with real estate investment trust Welltower (NYSE: WELL) to bring its services into senior living at greater scale, and SRG is one of two operators to launch this initiative.
All these efforts are notable in their own right, but they’re also necessary as senior living providers think about serving a new generation of residents. And those who do not keep up with their residents’ preferences may soon find themselves on shaky footing.
“Don’t assume if you build it they will come,” Grust said. “It’s a tough business. And to be in the operating business, you have to refine and grow.”