President's Blog

Mitchell S. Elliott, AIA  SAGE President

Senior Partner

RDG Planning & Design

Mitch has been involved in SAGE for over ten years, as an advisory group member,  Vice President and currently President of the organization.  His depth of understanding in senior living design and resident-centered strategies has expanded substantially through the relational connections he has cultivated through SAGE.  He also serves as 2nd Vice Chair for the Health Care Section Board of NFPA.  Mitch is a member of the AHCA Life Safety Committee.  

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  • Tuesday, December 12, 2017 11:09 AM | Mitchell Elliott (Administrator)

    At a recent presentation I was making to a university board, I was asked to describe the changes I had seen over my 30 years of experience in senior living.  This topic was not a part of the PowerPoint I was presenting, but I quickly adapted.  My initial response was to set the context of 30 years.  When I began my senior living journey, only the owner of our company had a cellular phone…and it was the size of a brick.  Very few of our clients had a facsimile machine.  One of the younger board members actually looked at me in confusion until I explained that fax was the shorter version.  By this point in my response, I was beginning to feel my age.

    It donned on me that 30 years ago this year, OBRA 87 came into existence.  If you read the history of SAGE, that was milestone legislation that had a significant impact on a more humane approach to long term care and senior living as a whole.  OBRA 87 had tremendous influence on how we thought about the environment for seniors.  This was about the time that Dr. Bill Thomas had the gall to invite pets into the care environments.  He, among others, began talking about scale…not in terms of weight, but in terms of size.  We began bringing food to the people rather than herding people to the food.  The concept of dining with 10-12 of one’s closest friends, rather than being fed in a cafeteria of 120 became so appealing! Maggie Calkins (founding SAGE Member) encouraged us to stop hiding the toilets! Lori Hiatt challenged the concept of the nursing bunker.  David Green (founding SAGE member) gave residents a voice.  Betsy Brawley (former SAGE board member) shed light on the visual experience in senior living…pun intended.  Rob Mayer gave the regulations an overhaul. 

    In this name dropping/acknowledging exercise, I have probably missed a number of pioneers in our world.  One of the hallmarks of the past thirty years involves the progression from the medical model to the social model to what I would call the experiential model.  Actually, I credit Apple for raising our level of awareness when it comes to user experience and quality, which has transcended into so many markets today. Today, we talk about the bathing experience, the admissions experience, the discharge experience, the dining experience, the wellness experience and even the outdoor experience. This all relates to culture. Our built environments can’t create culture, but they can surely enhance the experience.

    I am excited to see what the next 30 years will bring in terms of change for the senior living space.  At the rate we are progressing, I believe even the next five years will provide for some amazing breakthroughs.   


  • Tuesday, November 14, 2017 9:31 AM | Mitchell Elliott (Administrator)

    In late October, we wrapped up LeadingAge along with our 2017 Annual Meeting for SAGE. First of all, I would like to congratulate our newly elected board members, Christine SomaTeresa Whittington and Lori Reynolds. For more information on their backgrounds and expertise, please read their bios which were a part of the election process. Christine and Teresa were incumbents and Lori will be joining the board for the first time. I want to welcome all three to SAGE leadership as we set the course for the future. 

    As we welcome new board members, I would like to extend a heart-felt thank you to our departing members. Jonathan Blackwood of studioSIX5 and Charlie Jennings of Harbor Retirement Associates will be stepping off the board at the end of 2017. They have both brought meaningful insights to our strategic planning process as we build on the past and dream into the future. Please thank them for serving our senior living market in this influential way. 

    We are growing!  At this time last year, we had 170 members on the active/pending renewal status.  Today, we have 256 members on the active/pending renewal status.  That represents a 50% growth in the past year.  I think the success of the SAGE Webinar series has contributed significantly to the growth of the organization.  I also believe that our members are sharing their passion for the market space in a more intentional way.  Keep up the great work as we grow our membership, and more importantly, our member value. 

    Our collaboration with J+J Flooring Group on a couple of initiatives is also very fulfilling and inspiring.  We will be issuing a press release very soon that lays out more details pertaining to the upcoming POE.  One thing I can share is that the POE presentation has been slated for a deep dive session of two hours at the beginning of next spring’s Environments for Aging conference.  I would like to thank Emerald Expositions for recognizing the significant value that this POE will bring to our profession and market space. 

    SAGE has also been collaborating on the “Dialogues” Event that is sponsored by J+J Flooring Group.  I had the privilege and opportunity to speak at their first event in Dallas last week.  All of the speakers were SAGE members and many in the audience were exposed to SAGE for the very first time.  I want to thank J+J for inviting SAGE to accompany them on this journey of inspiring education. Learn more about "Dialogues" HERE. 

    This blog is more about updating and less about an opinion…and maybe that is refreshing for some.  Never fear, the opining will return next month!  I trust that you will all have a meaningful Thanksgiving holiday.  Make sure and count your blessings and live a life of gratitude. 

  • Monday, September 11, 2017 1:48 PM | Mitchell Elliott (Administrator)

    As the recovery is underway from Hurricane Harvey in Texas, our compatriots in Florida are just starting to take a glimpse outside to survey the damage from Hurricane Irma.  There wasn’t even a letter in between the naming of these two devastating storms!

    We have a number of SAGE members in Florida and in southeastern Texas.  We have attempted to follow up with many of them to check in.  I am encouraged by the human spirit as we hear stories of heroism, self-sacrifice and perseverance in the recovery efforts.  Lori Alford of Avanti Senior Living shared of the unselfish efforts that their caregiving team put forth in protecting their residents, knowing that their own personal homes were at risk.  Charlie Wilson at Buckner in Dallas has rolled up his sleeves in supporting their care communities in Houston and Beaumont.  In these challenging times, titles get thrown out the window…and for good reason.  In addition to the selfless acts of support, the collaboration between care communities has been inspiring. 

    The minimal loss of life through both of these significant storm events is a testament to the emergency preparedness that our senior-living world embraces.  I know from my “provider” days that all the fire drills, the emergency planning and the deficiencies that seem to result from not documenting these preparatory activities can be frustrating.  If our team members aren’t careful, we can all go through the motions in preparing for emergencies.  For those who have endured Harvey and Irma, that preparation has paid off.  Kudos to all those who have protected our elders who rely on all of us for safety and security. 

    As many of us in the design profession assist our clients with damage assessments, let’s make sure and thank those who “took the direct hit” from the storms.  Their unselfish efforts to protect our elders should be celebrated as an inspiration to all of us! 


  • Tuesday, August 08, 2017 12:13 PM | Mitchell Elliott (Administrator)

    In July, I had the wonderful opportunity to serve on the presentation selection team for the 2018 Environments for Aging Conference.  I was joined by Maria Lopez and Ric D'Amico in representing SAGE in this process.  In total, we had ten industry professionals working alongside representatives from The Center for Health Design, Emerald Expositions and EFA Magazine.  This selection process involved a rousing day of discussion, debate, disagreement and passionate determination as this team built the content for EFA18.  

    The review team went through every presentation proposal and narrowed it down to fill the 45 slots in the program.  The diversity in topics and approaches in this year's collection of presentations was interesting.  The standout presentation proposals, in my opinion, involved a multi-disciplinary approach.  There is a certain depth of experience when one brings together a designer, a clinician, an operator/provider and even a direct care-giver in a presentation.  This approach reinforces the collaborative nature of the planning, design and implementation process.  When one adds a case study component to this collaborative approach, the resulting "lessons learned" content becomes icing on the cake in terms of take home value.  This multi-perspective approach also reflects the collaborative values of SAGE as we reinforce our role as The Network for senior living environments. 

    I found it interesting and a bit concerning that during our discussions, one of the reviewers asked why designers and architects would attend this type of conference.  The sense was that we should already know this stuff!  I was taken back by that thought. Even though many of us have been involved in senior living for more that a quarter century, we must stay in a continuous learning mindset.  Our world is changing so quickly that yesterday's innovative solutions are today's baseline expectations.  

    EFA is definitely a place for designers, architects, senior living providers, regulators, researchers and solution providers to come together to learn from each other.  We must continue to learn and innovate on behalf of our clients and more importantly, for the older adults we serve.  

    It is a dangerous place to think we have things figured out...that there is nothing more to learn.  Keep asking questions.  Keep seeking to understand and keep learning how we can improve the lives of older adults through the built environment.  That's who we are.  That's what we do!


  • Saturday, July 15, 2017 6:18 AM | Mitchell Elliott (Administrator)

    At RDG Planning & Design, we recently celebrated the grand opening of a new office in St. Louis. This office has a concentration in senior-living interiors.  Our key partners in this new office. Kelley Hoffman and Catrina Cook, are building a fabulous team of passionate designers who are committed to quality environments for seniors. 

    This is starting to sound like an infomercial and that is not my intent. I do, however, want to amplify the value of interior design in senior living. It is amazing that many interior designers feel that senior living does not offer enough fulfilling, design opportunities. Really?  From benching office layouts to bistros to theaters to amazing worship spaces, senior living is a microcosm of almost every type of interior space available.

    The reality is, as resident-focused as we want to be, the marketing efforts in senior living are targeting the 50-something adult daughters. These adult children are influenced by HGTV, Pinterest and good design--in positive and negative ways. This interior influence is especially true when it comes to the first and lasting impressions that interior design can foster.  What aspiring interior designer wouldn't want to engage in this wonderful world of senior living?  There are opportunities galore!  

    As an architect, I understand that an interior designer can have as much, if not more, impact on the quality of life for our seniors. They truly make a house a home through their design eyes and attention to detail. We need great interior design to complement and enhance the architectural environments we are creating! 

    Personally, I think we need more young interior designers AND architects engaged in senior living. This involves those of us with more highway behind us than in front of us to invite others to join us on this journey. Then we must mentor them through the journey. I call this inviting and investing for our future. More to come on this topic. 

    SAGE is well positioned to be a key player in this inviting and investing strategy. Through education and networking, we can create a sustainable design community that is passionate about environments for older adults. We have a strong community of interior designers as stakeholders in SAGE, but there is always room for more. 

    Let's keep our eyes open for those talented people who can be difference-makers in senior living. Our elders are counting on us!

    PHOTOS: The Ridge Senior Living, Salt Lake City, Utah/Alan Blakely Photography/studioSIX5


  • Wednesday, June 14, 2017 4:05 PM | Lori Bridgeman (Administrator)

    By Bill Pemberton

    This month, for my “president’s blog”, I thought I would give you all a break from my ranting.  I have invited a guest blogger, Bill Pemberton, to share his passion in my place.  Bill Pemberton is senior vice president of the senior lifestyle division of The Point Group, a senior-focused marketing firm based in Dallas, Texas.  Bill is also a member of the SAGE Board of Directors.  Bill believes strongly in the value of design as an integral part of the overall customer brand experience.  Let’s hear what’s on Bill’s heart.  --Mitch

    *************************************************************************************

    As senior living communities continue to proliferate across the country, the level of competition is getting increasingly tough in markets, small and large.  This market saturation offers a baffling array of look-alike choices to consumers, and makes the first challenge to building occupancy simply finding a way to stand out from the pack.  While the temptation is to high pressure the sales team to close more deals and focus on occupancy, the real answer is probably focusing on a more effective brand strategy.

    Your brand wins for you when it connects well and quickly enough with prospects for your community that you make the shortlist on your prospect’s list of providers they want to tour.  Then, and only then, is it up to sales to uphold the brand promise.  Occupancy is an outcome of qualified leads, well managed.

    While brand is often seen as a mysterious and complex piece of marketing magic, it’s really a straightforward but strategic approach to a series of customer touchpoints that guide consumers on a journey from being prospects to customers, and then to brand advocates. That journey begins with your communications to the market, via media channels such as PR, advertising, direct mail, your website and more.  Your sales staff must continue that brand promise on the physical visit, or you risk an abrupt brand disconnect as in, “Honey, this isn’t at all what I was expecting.” That wastes everyone’s time.

    Brand formulation begins with defining what makes up your unique value as a company or community. That value consists of whatever benefits your community is intrinsically able to deliver on a consistent basis—especially in contrast to the competition who can’t deliver exactly those benefits, or as well. No senior community can be all things to all prospects.  Your goal then should be to capture those prospects who generally belong at your community based on your special ability to meet their key “care abouts”—whether real life needs or just strong preferences.

    Maybe you’re the only non-profit in a town full of for-profit providers—stress the benefits of that model.  Perhaps your building is older and unattractive, but your clinical staff are second to none, or you have a culture of caring that trumps a flashy building with a cold staff.  Maybe you’re more affordable than other communities, or conversely, you offer an extraordinary experience at unashamedly high prices. Maybe you’re located among walkable local attractions—or you offer quaint country ambiance. Ideally i’s a combination of several key factors—but find your “hook” points and keep it short. 

    Brand ID elements such as name, logo, slogans and website homepage copy are what most folks believe brand is about. But those are just the compact containers you use to provide a condensed, concise—and hopefully compelling—taste of what your full value proposition entails. It’s more overture than opera. You’ll need a brochure to tell all about dozens of your amenities but your brand promise may only trumpet “a signature lifestyle experience” and the like. The best branding is specific and memorable.

    Another key point: your brand isn’t a once and forever formulation but may require a “brand update” to reflect new expansions, renovations and other repositioning activities you do to counter new or improved competition. Finally, don’t hesitate to pull in a professional marketing agency—preferably one with strong senior marketing savvy—to guide you through the process of brand formulation and brand ID development. Brand is far too important to miss the mark and agencies spend their days in brand development processes. An agency can also ensure that your brand is communicated consistently across all channels.  In any case, start today making sure you’re leveraging your brand assets to the fullest. You may find that much of the occupancy growth—of the kind you need—takes care of itself.

    Bill Pemberton develops marketing solutions for senior living and care communities of all types and sizes across the nation—as well as companies who market to the senior living industry.  He welcomes dialogue at bpemberton@thepointgroup.com


  • Tuesday, May 09, 2017 4:54 PM | Mitchell Elliott (Administrator)

    Since moving back into the architectural consulting world, my first two months have been full of video conferences.  The technology that is available today to connect with people all around the country, as well as globally, is amazing.  The collaborative opportunity for design charrettes through shared desktops is mind-blowing.  This technology is reducing travel costs and helping designers and consultants control time and expenses. 

    With all this high-tech connectivity, are we still truly connecting with people?  Are we building relationships?  Are we missing something in our human interactions?  Call me old school.  Call me old fashioned.  Call me a skeptic.  There is something meaningful in a handshake.  There is something about eye contact that builds trust.  Face to face interaction allows for transparency.  It contributes to real relationships that matter.

    Speaking of face to face opportunities, I am anticipating a fantastic strategic planning retreat for the SAGE board, where we will be in the same room for two days.  The board normally meets electronically once a quarter, while the officers participate in monthly conference calls.  This in-person opportunity will contribute significantly to relationship and trust building.  The face-to-face collaboration will provide the board with ample time to get to know each other in deeper, more meaningful ways.  I am confident the SAGE organization will benefit now and in the future because of this investment in time and energy. 

    How many of our client relationships could benefit from a renewed face-to-face encounter?  How many of our employees would feel valued by sitting across the table over lunch, rather than receive a text or email?  Do you remember those handwritten notes? 

    The next time you get ready to launch an email or hammer out a text, think about the benefits of a phone call or an appointment starting with a handshake.  Your choice may just contribute to a deep, meaningful relationship for years to come. 


  • Monday, April 17, 2017 1:41 PM | Mitchell Elliott (Administrator)

    Our world seems to revolve around paying for a voice. Social media is full of advertising by those wanting to influence our choices and decisions. The data mining behind the scenes in social media is mind boggling as companies and people try to figure out what we want--what interests us. People pay considerable sums of money for that information. 

    Many donate significant dollars throughout the political process for a voice--an opportunity to influence and a chance to be heard. I think Washington refers to this as "pay to play".  The days of supporting a cause without an expectation of being heard seem in the distant past...except at SAGE. 

    A you may know, we have a number of companies who sponsor, donate, and support our efforts at SAGE. The sponsoring organizations only ask that we recognize their support. There are no lobbying expectations. No strong arming of decisions. These companies and individuals don't take a "what's in it for me" attitude in contributing to the mission of SAGE. 

    Last year, J+J Flooring approached me with an idea. Part of their corporate mission is to invest in the senior-living world. After sitting in on a SAGE POE presentation at EFA, they were convinced that we were worthy of investment.  

    We are working with J+J Flooring to develop a research initiative tied to the SAGE POE process. I am excited to see what will come from this collaborative effort this year. They are also sponsoring a strategic planning retreat for the SAGE board this coming May. J+J Flooring views the leadership of SAGE, as well as its members, as some of the most influential thought leaders in senior living. That is quite a statement that we feel the burden and responsibility to live out. 

    Does J+J Flooring, or any of our other sponsors want to sell more carpet, or showers, or construction services or furniture? Of course. More importantly, do our sponsors want to see innovative improvements in environments for seniors that impact quality of care and quality of life? Absolutely. 

    Please refer to the sponsor page on the SAGE website and thank those companies who sponsor us. Through their support of our cause, we will all have a more influential voice that will impact senior living for years to come. 

    Learn more about J+J Flooring's SAGE sponsorship HERE


  • Monday, March 06, 2017 11:44 AM | Mitchell Elliott (Administrator)

    Another Environments for Aging Conference is in the books!  As I have told many of my compatriots, this is by far the best design conference when it comes to thought-provoking content that is so relevant to senior living.  The presenters represent “who’s who” in the senior living world.  The intensity of the presenters is matched by the passion of the solutions providers in the trade show as together, they raise the bar of quality for senior living. 

    In almost every EFA conference I have attended, the quality of the content is only surpassed by the meaningful depth of relationships that come from the networking opportunities.  The Las Vegas location for this year’s event had a detrimental impact on those relationship-building opportunities.  Once you left the third floor of the convention center at Mandalay Bay, fellow “EFAers” were impossible to find. Instead, one encountered a herd of gamblers, bachelorette parties, unhealthy behaviors, and other visual images that may be difficult to leave behind.  Unfortunately, the atmosphere of Las Vegas was not supportive of the hallmarks of the EFA conferences of the past. 

    Printed in the conference program was the announcement of “same time, same place” for the 2018 EFA.  We as a profession spoke up and Emerald Expositions listened.  The leadership at Emerald knew that the timing and location of this year’s conference was an experiment.  Emerald took the high road, and in all humility, decided that a return to Las Vegas was not in the best interests of the EFA brand.  THANK YOU, to Kevin Gaffney and his team, for listening to the customer and making the difficult changes…changes that will probably cost Emerald some money.

    The fact that the team at Emerald listened also challenged me to look in the mirror.  Are we at SAGE listening to our customers…you, the members?  Are we as professionals listening to our customers and clients?  Are we listening to our co-collaborators?  I challenge myself and those I lead to watch our “question to statement ratio”.  If we aren’t at a 5:1 ratio, there is a good chance we are talking more than we are listening.  Covey says to seek first to understand, then be understood.  We need to be great at asking open-ended questions…and then listening. 

    Emerald Expositions did just that.  They asked the attendees what they thought.  We gave our honest feedback and they responded.  If only all of our asking and listening opportunities could result in these quality outcomes!  Emerald did ask us at SAGE to provide recommendations for locations for next year’s EFA Conference.  There is a strong possibility that next year’s conference will be more east coast in location.  Please communicate with either our administrative assistant, Lori Bridgeman, or me if you have some thoughts on next year’s location for EFA.  We would like a location where senior living is vibrant and one that represents the quality of environments in which we strive.

    Thanks for listening…


  • Thursday, February 02, 2017 2:19 PM | Mitchell Elliott (Administrator)

    I recently heard a story from a Chick-fil-A board meeting that may be a nice springboard for leadership at SAGE. Back in the 90’s there was a company called Boston Chicken that eventually changed their name to Boston Market. They were Chick-fil-A’s first competition in the chicken restaurant world. Boston Market had significant expansion plans. 

    As the story goes, the Chick-fil-A team was a little nervous about their competition. They began to have discussions about how to grow bigger and how to grow faster. The strategies landed in a board room at Chick-fil-A with many of their leaders and marketing folks debating about how they could grow faster and bigger to stave off Boston Market.

    Truett Cathy, the founder of Chick-fil-A, was in attendance at the meeting.  He was very quiet and seemed disengaged during the strategy sessions.  Finally, Mr. Cathy must have heard enough.  He said, “Gentlemen, I am sick and tired of hearing you talk about us getting bigger!” And then he paused. He said, “What we need to be talking about is getting BETTER!”

    Here is his leadership principle we can learn from: “If we get better, then our customers will demand we get bigger.” That statement shifted the entire conversation of the meeting and the strategy for Chick-fil-A. Not coincidentally, in the year 2000, Boston Market actually filed for bankruptcy. That same year Chick-fil-A hit a billion dollars in sales for the very first time.

    I couldn't help but apply this principle to SAGE.  We have experienced substantial growth over the past year...to the tune of 148% growth.  We are getting bigger, but are we better?  I think yes. We are seeing increased member engagement, and--perhaps most telling--SAGE members are introducing their colleagues to SAGE membership. The SAGE webinar series is just one example of our pursuit of "better". Every month, more and more Great Minds are Learning with SAGE. The SAGE board is committed to growth in membership numbers, but more importantly, in membership value! We encourage all members to contact us with their ideas for making SAGE better. 

    We can also apply this leadership/strategic principle to each of our roles in the marketplace.  If we get better at what we do, we will get bigger.  The higher the quality of service and products we provide, the more our influence will expand beyond where we are today.  

    In closing, I am going to re-create an over-used phrase.  Instead of "go big or go home", let's Get Better, Get Bigger and then Go Home to enjoy the fruits of our labor.


    Image: By FotoosVanRobin from Netherlands (Crispy Chicken Strips) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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