Opinion: The Big Picture: Going From Good to Grating

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Columnists frequently fall into a predictable trap around this time of year. Many feel an almost primal urge to have their December essay babble about the amazing year that was. This almost invariably precedes a January piece promising an even more amazing year ahead, or similar tripe.

Maybe it's a holiday-sugar thing. Fortunately, most of my colleagues seem to regain their composure in time for the February issue.

My suggestion for pundits tempted to overhype current events is to remember the words of former Dallas Cowboys running back Duane Thomas. When asked to gush about the importance of the NFL's annual Super Bowl a few decades ago, he replied, "If it's the Ultimate Game, how come they play it every year?"

I mention this because it's currently fashionable in some corners to refer to 2007 as "the best year ever."

It's not too hard to see why such exuberance exists. These certainly are heady times, at least in terms of some of the leading indicators. Occupancy levels are in the low- to mid-90% range for skilled care, assisted living, dementia care and independent living, according to the organizations that track filled beds.

It's also worth noting that payments to operators – whether via the government or customers' checkbooks – have hit all-time highs. And despite the fallout from the subprime real estate market meltdown, capital remains remarkably affordable. In fact, it could be argued that funding has never been easier to obtain. So I'll concede that these are in fact very good times for the industry. But the best year ever? Not so fast.

Let's not forget that this field has been around for a lot longer than most of the people in it. Relatively few of us were plying our current trade when the Medicare and Medicaid programs essentially jump-started this field. And it's a safer bet that nobody can remember when the first non-profits started delivering eldercare services more than a century and a half ago.

I'm also fairly sure that the eldercare field will be around for a lot longer than any of us. So let's size up 2007 for what it was: a very good year.

As for what's ahead, does anybody really know what's going to happen? Put another way, would anybody be willing to stake the lives of loved ones on how well their predictions for 2008 turn out?

No great revelation here, but I see four issues that deserve very close attention in the year ahead. They are: occupancy rates, payments, the sub-prime meltdown and what happens to private-equity firms.

To the extent that the news is good here, it's likely going to be a satisfying time for operators. And should that happen, some columnist will no doubt feel compelled to inform us that 2008 was the best year ever.
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