Students with the senior living management program through Washington State University visit Spokane’s Rockwood South Hill. (Contributed photo)

With 10,000 a day reaching age 60, WSU institute to seek answers

EVERETT — Where will the baby boomer generation live as they grow older? Who will care for them? What technology can be used to aid them?

These are questions that need to be answered — and fast as more than 10,000 people a day reach the age of 60.

Now Washington State University is proposing a new research institute as part of its Senior Living Management program to explore these issues.

“We talk about the silver tsunami,” said Scott Eckstein, who heads the program at Washington State University North Puget Sound at Everett. “The numbers are astronomical on what’s coming and what the need is.”

A research focus will allow the WSU program to consider best practices for residents, staff, management and families, Eckstein said.

“We don’t know how the boomers are going to want to or need to — I don’t want to say retire, because baby boomers don’t retire — re-purpose or transition,” Eckstein said.

The institute will formally bring together groups on the WSU campuses who have been meeting informally to shape the Senior Living Management program, said Nancy Swanger, associate dean and director for school of hospitality business management.

The program only includes a single course right now. Eventually WSU would like to offer a professional certification and later a major in the program, Swanger said.

“It has been in slow growth mode, but there’s a ton of interest there since the day we started,” she said.

If the institute is approved, there is a separate effort to name it after Granger Cobb, the former CEO of Emeritus Corp. in Seattle who died of cancer in 2015. Cobb along with other senior living industry executives in the Puget Sound area helped convince WSU — and raised $500,000 — to launch the Senior Living Management program in 2010.

Industry veterans felt WSU’s School of Hospitality Management was a natural fit to train a next generation of senior living managers, Swanger said. There are similar skills needs to run senior living communities as there are to run hotels and resorts.

“It was pointed out to us by the industry folks, the Seattle folks who came out to us and said this is a no-brainer,” she said.

Argentum, the nation’s largest senior living association, predicts that 1.2 million more people will be needed to work in the senior living industry in the next decade, Eckstein said.

“I think that’s a conservative number considering the growth and the demographics,” Eckstein said. “With 10,000 people a day are turning 60, the numbers are phenomenally large.”

Eckstein joined WSU’s Senior Living Management program in March 2016, taking over for Merrill Gardens president Bill Pettit who had been the senior-living-executive-in-residence.

Eckstein has offices in Everett and Pullman, but teaches the senior living course at all of WSU’s branch campuses online.

He started his career in New York as a developer, but changed his focus to senior living for professional and personal reasons.

In the early 1990s, his grandfather who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease and needed to be cared for in a nursing home. His grandmother was living by herself at her home in Bronx, New York.

“She was alone,” Eckstein said. “She had an aneurysm and passed away alone. The story was she was there for eight or nine hours. I said that should not be.”

He started in marketing and research and moved into development — building and constructing senior housing — before eventually moving into operations. He also worked in consulting for the industry. Before WSU, Eckstein worked at Brookdale Senior Living, which acquired Seattle-based Emeritus Corp. in 2014.

“I was sort of a fix-it guy, an operations specialist is the best way to put it,” Eckstein said. “I would go around to fix some properties and help some properties that were leaderless.”

Senior living has evolved over the past quarter century from institutional care to a model where older people live together in a social setting. And the industry will continue to evolve as baby boomers move on from their careers into new lives.

“They may not be working at their job, but they need purpose,” Eckstein said. “They want purpose whether it’s to travel or volunteer or whatever. Calling it retirement is really not fair or accurate. How and what and where and all of that good stuff, we’re trying to find out.”

The senior care industry needs to figure out the best way to care for 65 year olds to 85 year olds and 86 years old to 120 year olds, Eckstein said.

“I say 120 year olds on purpose, because we’re going to have gains in longevity over time,” Eckstein said.

Technology is also changing the way that seniors live.

Can monitors help detect falls or people wandering away from their homes? Could monitors be used to detect urinary infections, which can cause life-threatenting problems?

Can Fitbit-type devices alert to changes in sleeping patterns or blood pressure that can to medical emergencies?

One of the biggest questions that needs to be answered is how to attract a future workforce.

“We need a lot more people to staff and manage communities how are we going to do that? We need to make the business sexy,” he said.

Eckstein had his largest class yet this spring with 45 students. He always takes his classes on field trips to see senior living communities in Seattle and Vancouver, Washington.

“I take them to show them what modern senior living can be and 10 times out 10 they’re blown away by it,” Eckstein said. “When I show them what senior living is and can be, they are completely blown away.”

Jim Davis: 425-339-3097; jdavis@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @HBJnews.

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