COVID-19 pushes seniors toward independent living sites

Communities offer benefits of social interaction and immediate medical attention.
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Clark at Keller Lake will have more of a community feel with a central plaza that emulates downtown Holland or Gaslight Village in East Grand Rapids. Rendering courtesy EV Construction

EV Construction is keeping tabs on the state of senior living during and post-COVID.

The Holland-based general contractor has contracts with several senior living organizations like UMRC, Clark at Keller Lake, Porter Hills, Sunset and Trinity, and has noticed the pandemic is not slowing consumer interest in independent living. In fact, it may have renewed it.

John Parker, vice president of project development at EV Construction, said the predicted trend over the next several years is an increased interest from seniors in transitioning to independent living.

“What I’ve heard from other owners is they believe the COVID crisis will move some seniors from living on their own in a traditional home situation and show them the benefits of moving into a community and being surrounded by other seniors and having access to assistance,” Parker said.

EV is now serving as construction manager for Clark at Keller Lake, alongside Plante Moran, which is the development consultant for the project.

Eric Dumont, senior vice president of Plante Moran, said the effects of COVID depend on the area of the country. In Florida, for example, the organization has not seen a delay in new construction, with the exception of some additional on-site safety measures.

Some other projects in Ohio and Michigan are a different story, however, where shutdown orders were stricter. Dumont said Keller Lake’s timeline was impacted by the COVID shutdown orders.

Plante Moran consults about 800 health care clients across the U.S. and is geared toward helping those clients with real estate and development.

“I would say a unique approach to their (EV’s) thought in that situation was to be proactive versus reactive — doing as much as we possibly could during the down time to allow us to come out of that stall period full speed ahead,” Dumont said. “So it took a lot of pre-planning, a lot of contract discussions, a lot of keeping the money flowing from the owner’s side.”

While the project was impacted by issues like delays in materials, the setback was not detrimental, Dumont said.

Clark at Keller Lake has been under construction since December 2019 and is now anticipated to be complete by August 2021. The $27-million project encompasses 52 new independent living apartments in two large, multi-story buildings, the addition of common space and amenities throughout the site and major site development work. New units still are available.

Progressive AE is serving as architect for the project.

Andy MacLeod, senior living practice leader at GMB Architecture in Grand Rapids, agreed with Parker’s observation. Originally, a lot of industry leaders were concerned proximity and housing people under one roof was going to take a downturn in a time where people are concerned about social distancing, but it appears having close access to care is overriding that fear.

“We received three market studies, and all of them have indicated there’s a need for independent living, and each of those campuses was thinking they were going to provide something other than independent living before the market study,” MacLeod said.

Dumont said the demand for skilled nursing, conversely, will likely experience a downturn as assisted living models tick up. Unless it’s a newer building, traditional skilled nursing facilities involve double-occupancy rooms and closed quarters, which because of the COVID scare, is less than desirable.

“I think those days are going to be far and few between going forward, not just because of COVID but future pandemics,” Dumont said. “I don’t think this will be the last one we come across that people are concerned with, so how do we redesign and reshape senior living for the future?”

In the last year, every one of GMB’s skilled nursing projects have been “green-house homes,” which have 10-to-12 occupants, everyone gets their own room, and the rooms all open up into a larger community space.

MacLeod said generally green houses were not affected anywhere near the degree traditional skilled nursing facilities were in that timeframe.

Parker added another trend, and something involving all of EV’s new projects, is one or a series of amenities conducive to healthy community living. As opposed to a traditional fitness center or swimming pool, these new community amenities look more like a traditional downtown center with shopping, salons and restaurants.

Clark at Keller Lake has a central plaza emulating some downtown communities like downtown Holland or Gaslight Village in East Grand Rapids.

“I think new successful senior living projects need to have those elements to be competitive as well,” Parker said.

EV also is in a joint venture with Christman Company and will be breaking ground this fall on a third phase expansion of Waterford Place, owned by Sunset Retirement Communities, in Jenison. The project will add 168,000 square feet to the campus and include 62 independent living apartments at Waterford Glens and 20 lakefront villas at The Cove.

Construction is valued at $30 million. The scheduled completion date is around spring 2022.

Resthaven also is charting its future for the post-COVID world. The Holland-based senior living organization contracted EV to serve as construction manager.

The Farmstead is a $60-million project expected to break ground in 2021. The 20-acre senior living development next to Van Raalte Farm in Holland includes 80 independent living apartments, 36 assisted living units and 20 freestanding cottages. All living options still are available for reservation.

“Because of the type of project it is, we have to have 70% of the units pre-sold before we can put a shovel in the ground,” said Deedre Vriesman, CEO of Resthaven. “So it takes a little longer on the marketing side, because people have to commit so early.”

Vriesman said the renewed interest in potential residences has been dictating the project timeline, and Resthaven has repeatedly received requests from interested parties to get shovels in the dirt sooner.

“I think people have felt really isolated alone in their homes, particularly knowing their adult children or grandchildren don’t feel safe to visit them in case they might bring something to them, but also not feeling comfortable going to the grocery store,” Vriesman said.

Resthaven reported zero instances of COVID among its 400 residents. While residents are doing well physically, Vriesman said there’s a continued challenge to meet their needs for human interaction. The group also cares for patients with memory loss who have difficulty using video chat programs to interact with loved ones.

Resthaven launched its marketing campaign for the Farmstead about six weeks before the COVID shutdown. The group originally had planned in-person meetings where interested parties could learn and ask questions about the project, but Resthaven had to quickly shift everything to online meetings.

Resthaven also created short online video clips showing what each aspect of the new community would be like. Vriesman said the conversion ratio from prospective resident to committed member has been tremendous.

“Once they see how we’re going to meet all of their needs, people are really excited about it,” Vriesman said.

Parker praised Resthaven’s sales team for pivoting its engagement process in the midst of the pandemic.

“One silver lining was when they were able to get prospective residents on to a Zoom call, it actually was a more engaging conversation because it was one-on-one,” Parker said.

The Farmstead is scheduled to be completed by 2023.

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