When Residents Compete, Senior Living Providers Win

Cultural offerings in senior living communities are moving way beyond watercolor classes and the goal of feel-good expressiveness. Innovative programs are raising the stakes for residents by introducing a competitive element—and providers are benefiting with more customized marketing and a boost in referrals.

From a holiday card contest to an opera singing competition that engages seniors with promising young talent, senior living communities are finding that fine art and smart business really can go together.

A Holly, Jolly Contest

For many seniors, the holidays are a time for reminiscing, celebrating — and competing against one another in art competitions.


HHHunt Senior Living, which operates 21 Spring Arbor assisted living and memory care communities throughout Virginia, Maryland and North Carolina, was one of the providers that participated in an inaugural holiday card art contest last year.

As part of the contest, residents were asked to create original holiday-themed artwork and submit it for voting. The winning artwork was then featured on a holiday card available for purchase through Senior Living Smart, a solutions network that aims to curate resources to help operators improve occupancy, revenue and service delivery, which organized the competition.

Now in its second year, Facebook is being used to promote the contest, upload the artwork and supervise the voting. This year, communities were encouraged to include a story with every art submission. This practice provides a “good opportunity to reminisce and share stories with memory care patients,” Debbie Howard, CEO of Senior Living Smart, told Senior Housing News.

In the HHHunt communities that choose to participate, the act of creating pieces for the contest became part of the HHHunt signature “Art from the Heart” program, Christine Stempel, Senior Director of Quality & Education at HHHunt, told Senior Housing News. In many Spring Arbor communities, the residents submitted drawings or paintings; in others, the artwork involved fabrics, papier-mâché, yarn or clay, images of which would appear on the holiday card, Stempel said.

The contest allows for flexibility in its execution, as well, and every HHHunt community approaches the contest differently. Some communities host an in-house art contest in advance of submitting a winner or winners for further judging, Stempel said. Others showcase the residents’ art as part of an Alzheimer’s fundraising effort. Still other communities “just have a fun day of creativity without making a big fuss over the contest,” Stempel explained.

Additionally, multiple HHHunt communities last year used art created for the contest to make holiday cards of their own, whether the artwork had won or not, Stempel said.

Along with the boost in programming, the Resident Holiday Art Contest has benefitted HHHunt and other participating providers from an operational perspective.

The contest and the artwork it encourages show “active, engaged, purposeful living,” Howard told SHN.

With that effect, the art contest has helped make HHHunt seem like “a warm and inviting option for assisted senior living,” and a good choice for referring physicians, Stempel said.

“Families feel better about their decisions and friends are more inclined to visit,” Stempel told SHN. “Physicians and other referral sources do see the value to the well-rounded life experience we strive to provide our residents and they are more likely to refer to Spring Arbor.”

Additionally, the communities that opt to participate in the art contest enjoy an increased presence on social media. “We expect this will help viewers to better understand the Spring Arbor brand identity,” Stempel said.

Competitions also help draw attention to communities because they can attract media coverage. Already, this year’s contest has drawn press to communities.

The artwork also makes for unique marketing collateral, as Senior Living Smart enables member communities to create customized holiday cards from resident art regardless of whether it wins, Howard said.

This…is “Opera Idol!”

Meanwhile, residents at a different senior housing community, The Merion, aren’t being judged for their work — they’re doing the judging.

The Merion, which opened after the renovation of the North Shore Retirement Hotel last year, hosts “Opera Idol.” The competition, inspired by popular talent search television shows, attracts aspiring opera singers from all over the United States to the community in Evanston, Ill., 12 miles north of downtown Chicago.

As part of the competition, dozens of college and graduate students compete in a series of competitive rounds leading up to the finale, where the grand-prize winner receives a $3,000 scholarship and airfare to a workshop directed by opera star Sherrill Milnes in Savannah, Georgia.

The Merion is responsible for hosting the competitions, coordinating the program, recruiting professional judges and sponsoring the scholarships. This panel of professional judges, along with an audience filled with Merion residents who vote, determine the outcome in all of the competition’s preliminary rounds.

Opera Idol began as an informal, one-time collaboration between The Merion and its neighbor, Northwestern University, according to Margaret Gergen, director of leasing at The Merion. Baritone Sherrill Milnes was scheduled to conduct a workshop for Northwestern’s music department in 2006, but all of the university’s performance venues were booked.

Northwestern then reached out to what then was the North Shore Hotel, inquiring if the workshop could take place in the community’s ballroom. The performances incited an “electric response from residents and students” alike, Gergen said, and the event has continued in some capacity every year since then.

Gergen is a fan of “any kind of programming that emphasizes lifelong learning,” and recommends that senior communities partner with nearby institutions of higher education when possible.

The benefits of doing so are wide-ranging, including in some cases enhanced staffing and more evidence-based programming. For The Merion—which counts Northwestern alumni among its residents—the connection with the Big 10 school may not only help entice residents, but also has helped create the community’s distinctive vibe, in which music plays an important part.

As Gergen puts it, The Merion’s location near Northwestern and its programming like Opera Idol have helped it to foster a “wonderful vitality.”

Written by Mary Kate Nelson