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January 8, 2024 5 To Watch

Duncaster CEO Papa to lead major independent living expansion in Bloomfield

HBJ PHOTO | HANNA SNYDER GAMBINI Kelly Smith Papa is the CEO of Bloomfield life plan community Duncaster, which has a major expansion planned in the year ahead.
Kelly Smith Papa 
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Connecticut’s population is aging, creating increased demand for senior-living options, a trend that shows no signs of slowing.

One of the fastest-growing senior-housing sectors, experts say, is independent living, which offers communities — typically made up of apartments or cottage homes — designed for individuals who are 65 and older, an age cohort that makes up 18.1% of the state’s population and is expected to grow in the years ahead, according to U.S. Census figures.

One local senior-housing and care provider looking to take advantage of the state’s aging demographics is Bloomfield-based Duncaster, which this year will be seeking approval to significantly expand its Loeffler Road campus with the addition of 90 independent living units, as well as major renovations to its existing facilities.

Duncaster, which dates back to 1984 and has gone through several expansions over the years, is what’s known as a life plan community, which means it provides a continuum of housing and health services at every level of need for older adults.

It’s currently home to more than 300 residents, and also provides assisted living, skilled nursing and memory care services, if and when residents need them.

The expansion is the main priority for Duncaster CEO Kelly Smith Papa, who has led the not-for-profit organization since 2021.

She said the life plan community model — of offering housing with amenities and access to a continuum of care for people who have “carefully planned out” the final third of their lives — is in high demand, spurring the expansion.

Independent living units within U.S. life plan communities were 90% occupied in the second quarter of 2023, according to an analysis by Ziegler Investment Bank and the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care.

“It’s a relinquishing of the burdens associated with owning a home,” Papa said of independent living. “There’s a lot of work that goes into owning a home, and independent living is comfortable. People here really appreciate and enjoy life with many amenities like dining, learning programs, shops, arts, fitness — and (the) insurance that five-star care is available rather than waiting for a crisis and hoping there’s a room and a good rehab facility” available.

All-inclusive care

There are more than 60 independent living communities in Connecticut, according to U.S. News and World Report.

They differ from assisted living, which is regulated by the state and meant for older adults who need some support with the complexities of living alone.

It’s also different from skilled nursing or nursing home care, a costly model the state has been trying to move away from by incentivizing individuals to age at home.

As Baby Boomers live longer and remain more active later in life, they are seeking out independent living with long-range and all-inclusive care packages and pricing, Papa said.

For Duncaster residents, their cost is fixed and predictable, meaning it doesn’t change even if their needs do.

Residents pay an entrance fee that ranges from $100,000 to $1 million, which covers the cost of infrastructure and living space. Monthly fees cover most other services, from utilities, housekeeping, food, fitness and nursing care, if needed.

Duncaster residents get a life-care contract, meaning “everything (they) need will be taken care of here,” Papa said. If, for example, they eventually need assisted-living services, Duncaster will provide it.

It’s a model used by only a few other facilities in the state; there are less than 2,000 life plan communities in the U.S., Papa said.

On-site amenities are part of the attraction.

Hartford HealthCare has a geriatric care center located on Duncaster’s campus that serves both residents and outside patients.

Expanding to meet demand

Duncaster’s main campus sits on 95 acres in Bloomfield, with more land nearby for the planned expansion, which will take place over multiple phases.

The project, which currently doesn’t have a price tag and will be financed primarily through bonding, still needs town approval.

Phase one, which could break ground in late 2024, calls for 30 new apartments. A second phase would add 30 additional apartments along with 30 cottages, for a total of 90 new independent living units that would house up to 150 new residents.

In addition, the existing Duncaster campus, which consists of 180 independent living units, will get a new cultural arts center auditorium, updates to dining facilities and expanded fitness spaces.

Residents in the new neighborhood will have access to the main campus and vice versa. The new independent living units will offer amenities like a movie theater, fresh dining options, more yoga-based fitness, and an auditorium.

2024 challenges

Papa, 48, has 25 years of clinical and executive experience in senior living.

Prior to being named Duncaster’s CEO, she served as the organization’s vice president of strategy and community life, from 2019 to 2021.

Previously, she was the corporate director of learning at Wallingford-based not-for-profit senior-care company Masonicare.

Papa will be confronting other challenges in the year ahead.

As a not-for-profit with a set operating budget, inflation has been a major pressure point, as the costs of food, utilities, resident health care and employee wages have risen, Papa said.

In fiscal 2021, Duncaster reported $31.4 million in revenue and a $977,621 surplus, according to its most recently available 990 tax form.

There’s also a workforce shortage in nursing and elderly care, she said.

Duncaster employs 300 staff members, ranging from facility managers, housekeepers and nurses to therapy workers. The expansion will add about 50 new jobs, Papa said, creating an even greater need to find staff.

“There’s going to be a shortage,” Papa said. “As we see the shift in demographics of the baby boomers retiring, we have to consider the workforce. We have staff who have been here almost 40 years, and so while they’ve been dedicated and know this place inside and out, they’re going to retire, so that’s going to have an impact.”

Duncaster has created career pathways for its employees. It offers a tuition assistance program for workers who want to earn degrees in relevant fields, such as nursing, nutrition and human resources.

Duncaster has several workers who started in dining or other resident services, and now work in HR or other administrative positions, Papa said.

A recent report by New York ratings agency Fitch warned that broader economic headwinds — including higher wages, food prices and construction costs — will continue to be fierce for U.S. life plan communities heading into 2024.

“Demographics are still supportive of healthy demand in terms of (life plan community) occupancy, though staffing is still very much a sore spot contributing to much of the expense pressures for (life plan communities),” said Fitch Senior Director Margaret Johnson.

Check out the rest of HBJ's 5 to Watch for 2024.

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