By David Wilkening, Contributing Writer
BOSTON – Newton-born Serena Lipton is only 25 years old. But she is spending her college time these days not studying liberal arts or long-favorite majors like business, but rather a subject incongruous with her young age: the elderly—their lifestyle wants and needs. Yet, she points out that she is not there for a “cookie-cutter nursing or gerontology degree, and it is certainly not your traditional hospitality degree either,” she said.
Program launched last year
Lipton was the first student enrolled last fall when Boston University started its Senior Living concentration for its Master of Management in Hospitality (MMH) program. BU’s Senior Living master’s program is a groundbreaking approach and is believed to be the first of its kind. And it comes at a time when the aging hospitality market is generally seen as fast-growing but long neglected.
When you start discussing the general topic of senior living, a commonplace image is nursing home or medical care. Or the elderly immobilized in wheelchairs waiting for the next television show. But BU has been an early innovator of a program carefully and specifically designed for the rapidly growing senior population. They are literally reinventing that notion.
“They want an active lifestyle, adventure, good food, good company, great experiences. They want so many other things. Lines have blurred between senior care and our notion of traditional hospitality.”
Long interest in seniors
Lipton recently joined JLL, a real estate and investment management firm, as an analyst specializing in senior housing and healthcare practices. She holds a BS degree from the BU School of Hospitality Administration. She has long had an interest in the elderly.
“You might wonder why a 25-year-old would be embarking on a career in the senior living field,” she wrote in a recent article in Next Avenue, a site with the goal of “meeting and unleashing the potential of older Americans through the power of media.”
Her interest began as a teenager. At the age of 15, she volunteered weekly after school at a retirement community outside Boston. There, she introduced herself to every resident around, listening to their stories.
She spent her high school and college years working in all kinds of senior living communities: nursing care, memory care, assisted living and independent living. She studied successful management techniques for senior care. She paid careful attention to how individual experiences differed, And how those experiences could be improved.
The experience convinced her to create a career in the senior living sector, “dedicating my life to bettering the resident experience and doing what I would do to shift the sometimes unflattering perception of the industry,” she wrote.
One of first to recognize industry importance
She enrolled in BU’s master’s program, which she saw as one of “the first anywhere to recognize the importance of this industry.”
The program she has pursued includes elective subjects such as The Business of Senior Housing, Senior Living Operations, and Monitoring the Resident Journey & Experience. Many of the classes are taught by industry professionals brought in as lecturers.
There are at least two reasons why BU chose the new area of study. Room for growth is one major factor, says Leora Halpern Lanz, associate professor and assistant dean of academic affairs of BU’s School of Hospitality Administration.
The future market has become clear. The U.S. population is aging. Today, there are more than 46 million older adults aged 65 and older living in the U.S.; by 2050, that number is expected to grow to almost 90 million. This means by 2030, 1 in 5 Americans is projected to be 65 years old and over.
There’s also the lure of the hospitality industry.
“This industry represents the perfect balance of hospitality and altruistic purpose, which we know from years of experience that so many students have gone on to carve out in their careers,” she said.
Extensive research into industry needs
The senior MMH program parallels the undergraduate model but it is far from a carbon copy. Because there was no real existing model for it.
“More than a year’s worth of research and competitive analyses of other programs,” Lenz explained. “The industry’s needs, and qualitative conversations and discussions were behind the launch of this program.”
“We spoke with senior living CEOs, executive directors, and analyzed other programs, though there aren’t any like ours in our part of the country that focus on the human interaction as well as the business of the sector,” she added.
“We are trying to redefine what it means to be in the hospitality business,” said Upneja. “Hospitality was for many years very narrowly defined as hotels and restaurants and good service.”
Growing up in Newton, Lipton’s friends used to think her ambitions in high school and college to work in senior housing were both “strange and funny.”
“I believe that they find it even more strange and funny that I actually went on to it,” she added.
But she believes those attitudes are as ancient as out-of-date myths about seniors. “They now understand much more why I was so confident in my choice because it’s truly an industry that is currently filled with an abundance of opportunities,” she said.