Des Moines area Deerfield LifeSpace community wants to be better

Deerfield is a Life Care CCRC community in Urbandale, a prosperous suburb of Iowa’s capital city, Des Moines. It is owned by LifeSpace a nonprofit owner of twelve Life Care facilities in seven states.

LifeSpace’s national headquarters is Des Moines. Deerfield’s turbulent history is a backyard challenge for LifeSpace as Deerfield sank into a pre-packaged bankruptcy reorganization in the wake of the Great Recession. Burdened by a low occupancy rate and slow sales, construction bonds of approximately $40M were restructured and $18M in unsecured debt owed to parent LifeSpace was canceled. While the wheels of finance turned slowly, deferred maintenance accumulated and staffing issues apparently showed up in the nursing unit’s Medicare rating. Now on the upward trend, there are still issues. While staffing is 5-star, the current health inspection rating had many deficiencies and only 2-stars, yielding 4-stars for the overall Medicare score. (The overall rating is heavily weighted to the health inspection score as explained in our discussion of Medicare’s Star Rating system.)

After a recent tour and sales presentation, like Medicare, we  give Deerfield Lifespace mixed reviews. It appears to be on the recovery path with a new, approximately $9M investment by the parent, for both expansion and remodeling to address deferred maintenance. For instance, the hallways still feature the original ten-year-old carpet and dated wall colors and decor, all of which are now funded for replacement and update.

If you believe the recovery plan will work, Deerfield Lifespace offers good value for an attractive community. But there are enough open questions to temper optimism. The occupancy rate is only 70%. A significant number of the stand alone villas have never been sold or occupied in the ten years since Deerfield originally opened. And there are some areas of spotty execution reflected in the Medicare rating and our own experiences with hospitality and marketing.

For our own tastes and connections, Deerfield LifeSpace is ideally located. Deerfield is a community we want to like but we would feel better if uneven management results and financial performance were clearly solved. We’re cheering for Deerfield’s success and have the ability to wait and see.


What we like about Deerfield LifeSpace Community:

Deerfield is conveniently located to shopping, healthcare, and recreation and is connected by walking and bike paths to the larger community. The new suburban hospitals of the Iowa Health System and Mercy are well rated and about a mile away. A PGA quality bentgrass golf course is nearby at Des Moines Golf and Country Club. A wide boulevard with beautifully developed median gardens leads to the gracious port cochere at the main entrance. Landscaping is extensive but still dominated by the scale of the three-story independent living units. The one-story nursing unit or health center is off to one side, more in scale with the landscape. The wood frame architecture is attractive but lacks the detail and variation in finish materials and color that breaks up similar massive structures in the best. The exterior is attractive, but a bit generic with great landscaping and acceptable design.

Deerfield LifeSpace Community:entry drive

A wide boulevard with beautifully developed median gardens leads to Deerfield’s gracious port cochere at the main entrance.

Deerfield LifeSpace Community:entry

Deerfield’s Main Entry with a view of the three-story residential units.

Deerfield LifeSpace Community:lawn

Deerfield’s landscaping is extensive at the building entries but still dominated by the scale of the three-story independent living units.

Inside, the new base architectural standard for remodeled apartments is a major step-up, both in finish level and apparent age. The ten-year-old original standard was builder-grade white appliances, laminate countertops, and golden oak cabinetry, decidedly middlebrow even in 2000. New residents now get a choice of higher-end cabinetry in multiple door styles and finish designs. Several different expertly matched granite countertop and tile combinations are offered. Stainless steel appliances finish the updated look. My favorite combination was a sleek dark wood cabinet, with gray ceramic subway tile backsplash and an elegant mid tone granite countertop that picked up both the silver grays of the backsplash and appliances and the warmer limestone colors of the large 16” square ceramic floor tiles. Nine-foot ceilings and large windows offer plenty of light penetration and enlarge the perceived space. Apartments in the 1,100 to 1,200 sq/ft range were light and airy and in-line with the expectations of prospective residents. I heard many favorable comments during a group tour. Pricing at various levels of capital return offers good value looking at the real estate component alone.

Deerfield LifeSpace Community:kitchen

Deerfield Lifespace’s Updated Model Kitchen. Several other combinations of cabinet and tile colors are available but this was one of our favorites.

Deerfield LifeSpace Community: Bedroom

Deerfield Lifespace Model Bedroom

Deerfield LifeSpace Community:Living Room2

Deerfield Lifespace Model Living Room (1 Bedroom)

 

Deerfield LifeSpace Community: Living Room

Deerfield’s Model Living Room in the Larger Units.

Common spaces include a gorgeous two-story volume over the dining room. Dining is adjacent to a plaza that looks out over a large water feature. Service spills out onto the north facing terrace in the summertime. There’s a smaller, clubby and cozy fast serve area for coffee, desserts, and lunches. The exercise room is recently updated with modern, commercial-grade equipment. But there is no pool or hydrotherapy on campus. Deerfield partners with the nearby Urbandale Y for year around pool access. Most of the common areas are warm, intimate and detailed in their decor, but tend toward the formal pieces favored by the WWII generation. Deerfield is on the cusp of transitioning to the sleeker more informal preferences of the Baby Boom generation. Interior decorating is coherent and consistent. The message is generally one of luxury and comfort.

The new capital investments include the addition of a new performing arts auditorium that will, we think, enhance the sense of community engagement among residents and improve the quality of life offered at Deerfield.

Deerfield is also contracted with Masterpiece Living to provide individualized health performance and aging benchmarks to guide a resident’s health maintenance and improvement.  Masterpiece is partnered with the Mayo Clinic and relies upon Mayo tools and research, but is a separate entity.  We will dive into this Masterpiece Living in a follow-up discussion.

The Bad News

Health services are uneven according to Medicare.

Hospitality is uneven.

I attended an invitation only marketing dinner with the Director, LifeSpace CEO, marketing staff and about 26 other potential residents. Unlike some other communities, current residents were not included in the mix. (Never rely upon the paid staff’s view of the CCRC alone. You need to hear what residents think, good or bad.) This was an event intended to showcase the facility and highlight the announcement of a significant reinvestment plan. That is, management intended this be their best foot forward.

My spouse was unable to attend due to other responsibilities, so I was flying solo at a mostly couples event. Dinner was set-up in a private dining room off the main white table-cloth dining room. Upon arrival, I cruised the single long table looking for my name placard with no success. I was on the verge of asking if I’d been overlooked when I discovered two place settings off in a corner behind the French door. Another single and I had been relegated to the kiddie table. I could understand I wasn’t age eligible to buy today, but my dinner companion was a lady in the age and wealth sweet spot. Upon introductions around the main table, the Director failed to even acknowledge our presence at the kiddie table. One of the objectives of attending such events is to interact with staff and residents (when they participate or are offered). I was left to judge mostly on the lack of staff interaction or attentiveness (again, it wasn’t just me at the kiddie table). If this is a habit, it could also have issues with fair housing standards, treating singles differently than married couples. Well, maybe the food would offer redemption.

We’ll post a separate food review in a later post. For now, suffice it to say, both service and food quality were uneven. Dinner went from an unintentionally cold and disappointing main dish to a capstone coffee service that was excellent.

And this unevenness in personal experience with the hospitality and management is consistent with the uneven performance in Medicare evaluations noted in the introduction. In short, we think it’s Deerfield and not just our personal experiences.

Conclusion

Deerfield Lifespace highlights the challenging choices faced by a prospective new resident shopping for a CCRC community. Do you go for:

  • The established, older CCRC community with a clear track record of success, but that often commands a financial premium? (A great CCRC with a track record of full occupancy and high demand is like a highly selective college. You pay for the privilege of admission.)
  • The brand new offering with flashy new facilities but no track record?
  • The established community on the rebound? (What Deerfield Lifespace professes to be.)

And how can you tell any of these apart from a CCRC Community on the decline, sinking in a pool of debt?

LifeSpace’s CEO, Sloan Bentley described her company’s communities as children, in different stages of their lifecycle. Think of Deerfield Lifespace as a young adult that struggled at launch but now seems to be gaining confidence and making real, professional progress, but still possessed of imperfect judgment and experience.

There’s a lot to like about Deerfield Lifespace, but there are also some glaring holes in execution. I’m betting a follow-up review will be much better as big changes are in progress. The foundation and intentions are good enough to expect a better future. Deerfield’s past is chequered enough to wait and see if management can iron out the kinks. We want to love Deerfield Lifespace, instead, we’re a bit cautious. Some perfect steps in the right direction are still handicapped by rough, adolescent edges.