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Three Reasons Why Senior Living Communities Should Be More Green

By Marla Thalheimer

Kermit the Frog famously sang, “it’s not easy being green,” and with so many competing priorities and pressures in the senior living industry today, most would probably agree. With all the daily pressures who has the time to slow down and think about how to be green?

Of course, green means different things to different people, famous frogs aside. In this context “green” has become interchangeable with terms like “sustainable” and “environmentally friendly,” all of which refer to reducing the environmental impact of facilities while making them resource efficient, environmentally responsible, and healthy for their occupants. In this intensely evolving industry, three compelling reasons stand out for why green is good for business and should be embedded into the daily operations of every senior living community.

1. Green communities cost less to operate

After labor and food, utilities are typically the third highest operating expense for senior living, and if not well-managed, can easily spiral out of control. Meeting utility budgets does not necessarily mean that a facility is running efficiently.  Significant cost saving opportunities can be realized by implementing no-and low-cost measures such as turning off lights in empty rooms and installing strategically placed occupancy sensors, as well as smart capital planning for measures over time such as LED retrofits and high-efficiency HVAC equipment.

A recent study conducted by the U.S. General Services Administration comparing “high-performance” green buildings to non-green buildings and industry average benchmarks revealed that green buildings used 23% less energy than their non-green counterparts, and 43% less than industry benchmarks.  Water use results were similarly impressive, at 28% and 35% less than non-green facilities and industry standards, respectively.

The average senior living community spends approximately $100,000 per year on utilities; a 43% reduction would equate to $43,000 cost savings each year. While a 43% reduction in utility costs does not happen overnight, understanding usage and current levels of efficiency, implementing no-and low-cost measures in the near term, and smart capital planning over the long term are important strides toward realization of significant savings and becoming a green, “high-performance” community.

2. Green communities provide healthier living environments for residents

A growing body of scientific evidence demonstrates that building operations, as well as the products used to develop and maintain them, have a direct impact on the health and wellbeing of occupants.  According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Americans spend an average of 90% of their time indoors, and indoor air can contain more pollutants than the air outside.

Many senior citizens spend 100% of their time indoors, particularly those suffering from chronic illnesses, and these at-risk residents can be uniquely susceptible to the harmful effects of indoor pollution. Cleaning products, paints, adhesives, pesticides and air fresheners, among others, can all jeopardize respiratory health; many of these products are highly toxic and harmful to staff as well as vulnerable residents.

A recent groundbreaking study by the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health examining the impact of the indoor environment on cognitive function found that cognitive test scores of office workers more than doubled (62%) in environments with improved indoor air quality from basic measures such as increased ventilation and reduced volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

The European GERIE Study found a direct connection between indoor air quality and respiratory health in elderly nursing home residents; adverse effects worsened with inadequate ventilation and diminished when ventilation was improved. Ventilation, humidity, air flow and chemical toxins all play a role in the indoor environmental quality of a community. When properly managed, both residents and staff are healthier and happier.

3. Green communities provide engagement opportunities for residents, families and staff

Residents often yearn for meaningful activity and hail from a generation defined by frugality. Getting residents involved in the conservation of energy and water and implementing recycling programs can be fun and meaningful and improve the quality of life of residents and the community as a whole.

Working creatively with staff to identify savings opportunities, such as conducting a treasure hunt, and then providing recognition for good ideas can improve engagement while making employees feel respected and valued. Results from these efforts tell a great story that can be incorporated into marketing and recruiting efforts.

According to the Sheldon Marketing Group’s 2017 Eco-Pulse Market Research Report, 88% of survey participants agreed that the average person should be taking concrete steps to reduce his or her environmental impact, and 78% said they feel at least moderately responsible for changing purchasing habits and practices to positively impact the environment; in short, people care. A community that outwardly demonstrates environmental sensibility potentially gains a competitive advantage in attracting new residents, families, and staff while reaping the cost savings and engagement benefits.

How senior living communities are operated and maintained matters and even small steps can make a difference. Once committed and engaged, communities will find it’s not only easy being green, it’s the right thing to do.

CREDIT—Marla Thalheimer is a seasoned sustainability professional with over 13 years of experience in commercial real estate and senior housing, and a master’s degree in Sustainability and Environmental Management from the Harvard University Extension School. She is currently a Senior Manager at RE Tech Advisors focusing on creating value through sustainability in the senior housing sector.