Ways to attract a more diverse clientele

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Laura Dixon
Laura Dixon

As the population ages, older adults from a wide variety of backgrounds are now considering long-term care communities. Yet despite the universal need for senior care options, recent research shows that a whopping nine in 10 long-term care community residents are non-Hispanic whites.

A study released by Caring.com earlier this year also underscores a racial divide over attitudes toward long-term residential care. Sixty-four percent of Caucasian survey respondents said they'd consider assisted living for a parent, while just 37% of African American and Hispanic respondents said the same. But the survey also suggests an attitude shift for people anticipating their own senior care: 46% of African Americans and 49% of Hispanic respondents said they would consider assisted living for themselves.

The senior housing industry has attempted to address the diversity problem both by creating communities targeting specific groups like Jewish, South Asian, or LGBT, and by making communities friendlier to different cultures with multi-lingual staff, multi-cultural food offerings and events.  While this is a good start, there is still much work to be done.

If yours is among the majority of senior living communities in the U.S. that serves mostly Caucasians, it may be time to take an honest look at why you're not attracting a more diverse group of residents. With the right moves, you may just find yourself getting your message across to underserved but relevant groups who would be a great fit for your community.

Below are some key strides toward a more inclusive future in senior living communities.

Assess referral sources and outreach

Consider the referral organizations you currently rely on to send prospective residents your way. Do these agencies reach out to an ethnically and racially diverse mix of local organizations, or do they contact the same ones over and over? Furthermore, are the employees within the agencies themselves from different cultures and backgrounds? The more diverse their staff, the likelier an agency is to have connections with multi-cultural organizations from which to refer prospective residents. It's also a good idea to ask hospital social workers and patient advocates about the demographics they serve, and to make sure their patients know about your community.

Similarly, does your community reach out directly to different cultural groups in the area? Have you invited leaders from local cultural organizations to come and visit, or have you attended their events?

Think beyond the groups you already know. Maybe your community conducts regular outreach to local senior centers, but what about the synagogue down the street or the Buddhist temple, LGBT center?

Local United Services Organizations are also great to partner with since they reach veterans from a wide array of backgrounds. Attending these groups' events, inviting them to your events and meeting with leaders and participants can go a long way toward understanding their senior care needs, and ensuring they're aware of your community.

Update your marketing materials

Take a look at your marketing efforts – do the images and messages in your emails, website and printed materials reflect the people you wish to attract across all groups? Too often, they do not. Chances are, it's time to update your messaging, first impressions and presentations. The images and content the audience sees should appeal to a broad variety of people, taking into account the different cultural groups in your area.

You'll also want to make sure that your list of online contacts includes a variety of different groups, including those outside of your existing virtual Rolodex. Don't know which groups to reach out to? Do a little online research, either via a simple Internet search or by reaching out through your network of contacts. And when you do send marketing emails and other materials, they should convey a message of inclusion to different groups.

Prioritize diversity in hiring

Now that you've taken a closer look at the people who make up your referral sources and outreach, it's time to do the same with your employees. Having a multi-cultural, multi-lingual staff is one of the clearest signs to potential residents of different races and cultures that they'll feel comfortable and welcome in your community.

Residents who speak English as their second language will usually have an easier time in a community with staff who are proficient in their first language. Having staff members around who not only speak their language but also understand their beliefs and traditions is another important element to help all residents feel understood. When they tour the community, prospective residents are likelier to feel comfortable if they see others who look like them. A diverse staff is an important step toward achieving that.

Offer food, events, and activities that honor different cultures

Food and traditions are at the heart of any culture, and filling your menus and event calendars with a diverse array of cuisines and cultural happenings can go a long way toward making residents of different backgrounds feel recognized. More and more senior living communities today realize this and are offering meal options that reflect different cultures, from Mexican fare to Indian or Chinese dishes and snacks. Some communities make a point of scheduling special meals featuring different types of cuisine, while others have incorporated multi-cultural meals into their regular menu.

Outside of the kitchen, a community that hosts events celebrating cultural holidays and other traditions sends a message to prospective residents that their heritage is valued. If you're not sure where to start, consider the different backgrounds of your current residents and staff members. Chances are, they can fill you in on some important holidays, celebrations, or entertainment from their culture that would make for a fun community event.

Some simple ideas include a salsa dancing night, a Chinese New Year's banquet or a celebration of the Indian holiday of Diwali. Whatever the occasion, it will not only promote a sense of belonging and inclusion of different groups, but can also serve as a fun starting point for better intercultural understanding among residents.

Be sensitive

Part of boosting your community's appeal to different groups means understanding some of the objections that may have prevented them from considering a senior living community thus far. For example, in many cultures it's widely considered taboo to move a parent into a senior living facility.

While this is starting to change as the population ages and there's more awareness of senior living facilities, it's important to remember that there's still a stigma around senior living “homes” in many cultures.

Similarly, older adults in the LGBT community are sometimes hesitant to try out senior living for fear they will face discrimination – which is a valid concern, according to a recent study by the National Resource Center on LGBT Aging. In recent years, a growing number of senior living communities designed specifically for LGBT residents have sprung up to help address this problem. But existing communities can also appeal to these seniors, perhaps by designating a floor or wing dedicated to LGBT residents, or by hosting LGBT-focused activities and events like a Gay Pride Month celebration.

Whatever demographic your community hopes to attract, it's important that your staff is educated and trained on the cultural and social considerations each group faces and is sensitive to these issues.

Improve accessibility for disabled residents

Another key part of drawing a more diverse group of seniors to your community is creating optimal accessibility for residents with various physical disabilities.

Most senior living communities today are already equipped with some standard features to accommodate different ability levels, such as wider hallways, elevators, Braille and automatic doors. These types of features make your community more appealing to all prospective residents, since just about every senior appreciates easier access, mobility and the chance to maintain their independence.

But for residents of different ability levels to really feel welcome in your community, it's best to think beyond the more basic elements mandated under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Some key accessibility features include ramps and platforms, wide doorways, accessible toilet seats and Braille or raised lettering wherever possible throughout the community. In many cases, simple additions such as handrails for a single step up or step down or a long a pathway can make a world of difference.

Unsure where to start? An accessibility expert can audit the community's buildings to gauge how accessible they are and ways to improve access for all residents.

Laura Dixon is writer and editor for Caring.com, a free senior care resource for consumers.

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