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Nursing homes fade even as baby boomers age

June 23, 2016 Article 3 min read
Betsy Rust
The boom in skilled nursing homes in the United States has flatlined as home care and assisted living facilities gain popularity. Difficult choices lie ahead — for the industry and its future patients.

As the senior population grows, it’s easy to think that nursing homes will be popping up everywhere. In fact, the opposite is true. After booming for much of the late 20th century, the number of skilled nursing homes in the United States has flatlined at about 15,000 for more than a decade. By 2021, that figure could shrink by 20 percent.

That means more and more Americans will be forced to consider new ways to get the kind of care once found almost solely in nursing homes. Blame this on the new math of healthcare, the growth of alternatives to skilled care facilities, and rising lifespans.

Home care and assisted living facilities are becoming more popular, largely driven by how insurance reimbursement is changing. Medicare, a federal insurance program, and Medicaid, an assistance program run by state and local governments under federal guidelines, account for 90 percent of nursing home revenues; the rest comes from private long-term care insurance.

Both of these programs pay for long-term care for people who are poor and chronically or terminally ill. But nursing homes have long lost money on residents covered by Medicaid programs. A recent rewiring under Obamacare of payment approaches for Medicare patients who need short-term care following injuries or illnesses and hospital treatment has hurt profits there, as well.

Even revenues from private-pay and long-term care insurance are under threat. Many insurers hiked long-term care premiums or left the market, largely because policies are becoming unprofitable as seniors live longer. Wealthier nursing home residents, the true private-pay market, are poorer than they were before the Great Recession and now run out of money sooner, often in two or three years. When funds run out, individuals then enroll in Medicaid and can’t be discharged for failure to pay, which puts further financial pressure on facilities.

Medicare and Medicaid, along with other healthcare insurers, want to find ways to reduce the cost of healthcare by shifting individuals to lower-cost models. Increasingly, states are expanding Medicaid coverage to include home and community-based settings, options that are typically preferred over traditional nursing home facilities, especially among the newly old.

Thus, skilled nursing facilities are floundering while both home care and assisted living facilities are growing in popularity, particularly for those with chronic but manageable conditions, such as circulatory problems, respiratory diseases, and arthritis. The capital markets, including private equity sources, are accelerating the decline in nursing homes by shifting investment into assisted living facilities and home-based technologies.

Given these trends, nursing home construction and renovation have slowed as owners and operators hesitate to invest amid growing unpredictability over future revenues.

While consumers and their families prefer newer facilities, what drives satisfaction are the three C’s: consistency, capability, and caring by the staff. Unfortunately, nursing homes face significant challenges in recruiting and retaining staff in many regions of the country.

Nursing homes are used, for the most part, by individuals in their 80s and older. According to a US Census Bureau report, the percentage of the population 85 and older will increase from about 2 percent today to 2.9 percent in 2030 and 4.5 percent in 2050. In other words, for nursing homes, the widely publicized age wave will be more of a slowly rising tide, not a tsunami.

And the baby boomers who are expected to fill nursing homes aren’t quite ready to make the move. The leading age of this demographic group is barely 70, and the youngest barely 50. With advances in healthcare, “old age” is being pushed further out. In fact, medical advances and baby boomers’ quest for good health could mean that the bulk of this generation might not be looking for nursing homes — or whatever alternatives exist by then — for another 20 to 30 years.

All of these issues make for a questionable future for nursing homes, especially for single facility mom and pop operations or small multifacility groups. Indeed, many are exploring selling while prices are still high. Others may decide to watch their occupancy rates decline and the value of their businesses diminish.

Not all nursing homes will make it. The survivors in the sector likely will be chains, along with a handful of small, often high-end, niche operators.As America grays, it’s a paradox that challenges; difficult choices, and uncertainty lie ahead for millions of future potential nursing home patients, particularly those living in states that are not progressively promoting an environment that encourages payers to cover alternatives to traditional care.

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