Skilled nursing facilities’ occupancy rate continued to tick up in the first three months of 2014, while absorption flipped into positive territory for the first time in almost a decade, according to the latest quarterly figures from the National Investment Center for the Seniors Housing & Care Industry.

Nursing care occupancy reached 88.4% in the first quarter of this year, based on numbers gathered by NIC’s MAP® Data and Analysis Service. This was an increase of 0.4 percentage points from the last quarter of 2013.

The increase is in line NIC’s forecast models, which predicted occupancy in seniors housing to exceed 90% this year, NIC President Robert Kramer told McKnight’s recently.

The occupancy rate for independent living (90.2%) already has passed this benchmark, according to the data released Friday. Assisted living occupancy was at 89.1% in the first quarter.

The first quarter nursing care absorption rate was 0.3%, representing “the first positive gain … since NIC MAP initiated coverage in the fourth quarter of 2005,” the organization noted.

The reasons for this change are not yet clear, NIC Chief Economist Beth Burnham Mace told McKnight’s. Absorption in nursing care generally has been affected by the trend toward shorter stays in custodial long-term care, as people increasingly move into settings such as assisted living, she said. But the NIC quarterly data “doesn’t really tell us” what is behind the first quarter absorption rate, and does not provide clues as to whether this is an aberration or the beginning of a trend, Burnham Mace cautioned.

Annual inventory growth continued its “established” downward trajectory. First quarter inventory growth was minus-0.1%, matching the number from the previous three months.

First quarter private pay rents for the nursing sector were up 2.8% on a year-over-year basis.

NIC MAP tracks information from 12,600 properties in the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas, the organization says.