While senior living operators still have many short-term challenges to contend with, what they do between now and 2026 may well set the stage for the industry’s next decade to come.
Argentum CEO James Balda sees the industry at an inflection point between the Covid-19 pandemic and the looming opportunities of the near-future.
On the one hand, he believes that operators still have lots of work to do with regard to cost inflation and staffing. He also sees those pressures lessening in the next one or two years, and he thinks the current period presents a golden opportunity to plan for the future.
“This is an opportunity to think about where the industry is going over the next 10, 15, 20 years,” Balda told Senior Housing News. “You have to manage and perform, day-to-day, but you have to also be thinking about the long-term.”
That opportunity is reflected in Argentum’s strategic plan, which the senior living industry advocacy organization launched earlier this month.
The three-year plan centers on four big goals: Bringing 250,000 more workers into the industry; establishing quality measures with nearly a third of the organization’s members; improving lawmakers’ perceptions of the industry; and enhancing access of care to senior living, such as through the middle-market.
But Balda is thinking even farther out than just a few years, and what the industry does now may very well define its success or failures in the coming decade.
“It’s longer than three years. It’s a 10-year vision,” he said.
Vision for the future
Regarding staffing, Balda sees no easy solutions. But he does see a piecemeal of strategies that can help make a dent in the industry’s overall woes.
Over the next three years, he believes operators will need to expand and promote career pathways through apprenticeship or mentoring and create more supportive programs for workers. He also sees a need for legislation that will expand the senior living workforce, such as through immigration.
“It’s going to be immigration reform, it’s going to be mentoring solutions, it’s going to be partnering with four-year universities and two-year community colleges,” Balda said.
Another crucial goal for the future is communicating the industry’s value to the rest of the world. But operators will need to show that value rather than simply talk about it, which is why he also believes that operators have to “measure what matters.”
While the industry has done a good job tracking business metrics like occupancy and margins, Balda believes operators also must track and demonstrate quality for prospects and their families.
Though one form of that comes through third-party organizations such as Great Place to Work, Fortune or J.D. Power, Balda does not see that as the only tool operators can use. And he thinks the industry must make a larger effort to choose specific metrics to track.
“We’re better off coming together as an industry now to define and prioritize what those measures are,” he added.
Another goal — and somewhat of an evergreen one for Argentum — is to educate lawmakers on what senior living is and who it’s for. The Covid-19 pandemic has shone a spotlight on the industry for better or for worse, and that has helped lawmakers understand more about it.
“But generally speaking, there is still a lot of confusion between us and skilled nursing; or us and more … 55-plus, golf-course communities,” Balda said.
To get lawmakers to better understand senior living, the senior living industry must better understand lawmakers — more specifically, why they feel the way they do.
“We’re going to continue to educate lawmakers, but first we need to … understand how lawmakers think about us, how policy influencers think about us and what ultimately drives their perceptions of us,” Balda said. “Based on that, we’ll have a baseline from which we can start to improve the narrative … and measure over time whether or not their perceptions of us are changing.”
Like with staffing, Balda does not see one singular solution to the industry’s care access conundrum. But the opportunity is sizable and exemplified by the millions of Americans that might otherwise want senior living but can’t afford it.
Therefore, he sees a real need to engage lawmakers with the hopes of passing legislation to improve access to care.
“Anything we can do to create policy solutions that give operators a little more incentive to come into that space and a little more opportunity to operate within reasonable margins, I think it’s something we’ve got to take a serious look at,” Balda said.
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