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NEW YORK CITY-Traditionally considered a recession-proof sector, the seniors housing market is starting to become a bit strained under the weight of the downturn. On the performance side, vacancy rates are going up, while the tough conditions have forced developers to sideline or stall projects.

As with most other commercial real estate sectors, the lack of liquidity is the number-one challenge for those in the seniors housing niche, according to Jones Lange LaSalle’s 2010 outlook for the segment. The weak housing market, which makes some older homeowners hold off on selling their properties in favor of senior living, is also playing a major role.

Indeed, in the 12-month period leading up to March 31, 2009, the total number of senior housing units starting construction was down 37% from the prior year, and 45% compared to two years ago, report the National Investment Center for the Seniors Housing & Care Industry and the American Seniors Housing Assoc. Their recently released joint study, “2009 NIC/ASHA Seniors Housing Construction Trends Report,” examines senior apartments, independent living, assisted living and nursing care facilities and continuing care retirement communities under construction as of March 2009 in the nation’s top 100 metropolitan markets.

The good news, however, is that significant technological advances and new architectural designs will play a considerable role in maintaining the segment’s strength as discerning seniors will increasingly demand more innovative amenities.

“While operators from every facet of the continuum of care persevere in their efforts to appeal to seniors, it is the economy that continues to throw roadblocks in their way,” relates Michael Berne, a managing director and head of JLL’s seniors housing capital markets team. “Seniors wary of selling their homes in a down market have delayed even thinking about their future housing dilemmas, and many have even moved back in with their children.”

But over the next two decades or so, he adds, the number of seniors in the country is expected to more than double to about 75 million. “Society must adapt to this aging population,” Berne remarks.

Once the credit markets stabilize, JLL believes demand for the various types of seniors housing–independent living, assisted living, skilled nursing facilities, dementia facilities and continuing care retirement communities–will rise. The one difference is that the amenities offered at these properties will be significantly different than those you’d find today. Specifically, there will be more technological advances, medical and medical-related programs and more creative designs–most of which will be products of residents’ desires.

Those firms that understand and embrace these changes will be the ones that will see the most success. “For many generations, nursing homes were considered a refuge of last resort,” explains Berne. “To counteract this perception, the seniors housing industry has readjusted to attract ever more knowledgeable and educated clients and will make even more dramatic changes in the near future. Residents of yesterday’s nursing homes will not recognize the seniors’ communities of the future.”

On the technology front, seniors are going to want more than just Internet access and a computer and gaming rooms. In an effort to keep residents “connected,” JLL anticipates all rooms in facilities to have voice and visual instant access to family and friends, as well as to a wide variety of medical sources ranging from physicians to nutritionists. Technological tools–namely, sensors located throughout the room, on furniture and on bodies–will allow residents and staff to measure calorie intake, weight gain and loss, changes in hearing, eyesight, blood pressure and vital signs.

Owners of seniors housing facilities, meanwhile, will more likely adopt a proactive approach toward healthcare by providing medical programs and guidance customized to individual residents, rather than the entire tenancy. Through technological innovations, these unique programs will connect residents directly to doctors, hospitals, home healthcare companies and other medical professionals, giving seniors control over available disciplines, such as the intake of vitamins and supplements and diet and exercise.

And in terms of design, senior facilities of the future will look less like sterile institutions and more like homes, fostering the ability for residents to socialize in a warm comforting, community environment. Light, sound, water and greenery will all play major roles in creating such a scene, as will the acceptance of pets.

“As our population ages, seniors housing residents and their families will be seeking out, and securing, a far different living environment,” Berne stresses. “The facilities that fail to meet these expectations in the years ahead will be at a serious competitive disadvantage.”

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