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Executive Forecast 2021: A Rare Chance For Senior Living Reinvention

“When you’re in a chaotic environment, you white-knuckle the status quo. We just can’t do that. We really have to think about what is the ‘new next’ that we are going towards.”

Those are the words of Sequoia Living President and CEO Sara McVey, and they capture a common sentiment among other top executives in the sector: Despite all the challenges and heartbreak caused by Covid-19, these leaders are also embracing pandemic-related disruption as a chance to reinvent senior living for the future.

From novel ways of communicating with residents and staff, to new services and technology introduced as a result of Covid-19, to development opportunities that are now arising, top senior living executives are identifying ways that the pandemic has strengthened operations and opened up avenues for expansion.

As a result, they are optimistic that their companies and the industry as a whole will emerge from the pandemic stronger, and they are eager to build momentum over the next 12 months.

To learn more about how senior living executives are feeling heading into the new year, Senior Housing News connected with a handful of industry leaders. What follows is the second part of a two-part series sharing those responses:

Collette Gray, President and CEO, Integral Senior Living:

While the Covid-19 pandemic certainly rattled the senior living industry in 2020, we feel our Integral Senior Living and Solstice Senior Living communities really stepped up to provide incredible service for our residents.

We asked so much of our associates in making them pivot overnight in how they keep residents engaged, entertained, and connected to family and friends and even how we went about serving them meals safely. Our first priority when the pandemic hit was to be transparent with our residents, their families, and the ISL and SSL associates, and keep the virus out of our communities. We wanted everyone to know exactly where we stood with confirmed cases and protocols that changed as often as needed to keep everyone protected. Our regular communication and town hall meetings really allowed people the chance to have their questions and concerns heard, and we valued all of the input.

ISL and SSL are very optimistic about 2021. While the virus is still going strong, we are celebrating that Shavano Park Senior Living in Texas was the first ISL community to receive their vaccines, on December 28. We have many more around the country that have received dates of their vaccine clinics in the immediate future. Our focus right now is educating our residents and associates about the importance of getting vaccinated. The vaccine will allow our communities the flexibility to slowly return to normal and, more importantly, help slow the spread within senior living communities.

While slowing the spread of Covid-19 is a key focus, we are also looking forward to new opportunities in 2021. We have opened 4 communities during the pandemic and have another 8 opening before June 2021. In addition, we’ve transitioned several new communities into the ISL portfolio, so business continues to flourish, and we work with an incredible group of owners that are committed to the senior living space. We have adopted many topnotch safety technologies to make our communities as clean as possible, including Safe Family Lounges that separate indoor and outdoor environments; Health ENTRY Portals that utilize UV light at entrances; electrostatic handheld sprayers; Accushield screening devices; needlepoint bipolar ionization for air purification; and microbicidal paint.

Larry Gumina, CEO of Ohio Living:

We have an obligation to continue to advocate. I think that’s where an opportunity is, not only at Ohio Living. In Ohio, I’m 12 miles from the Capitol. If I look at the new House coming in, the new Senate coming into Ohio, a large percentage of those legislators have no clue — with all due respect — about the health care industry, let alone the aging services sector. So, we have an obligation to educate. That’s part of our agenda; part of my agenda. If we can assist in the education of those legislators, they’ll be in a better position to advocate on our behalf for changes.

I think what we’re going through in the whole industry that I’m opportunistically enthused about is that we’re going through a reset, right? We’re going to go through a reinvention and we’re going to go through a recovery. So, if you lump everything in together, we’re resetting. I think our segment of the health care industry has been fertile for disruption for a long time. I’m a glass-half-full kind of guy, but I know that at the end, we’ll come out stronger as a result of what we’re experiencing right now.

Andy Kohlberg, CEO of Kisco Senior Living:

The industry overall has to make an effort and do a better job of communicating the difference between nursing homes and senior living. Most of the bad [pandemic] publicity and deaths occurred in nursing homes.

We’ve got a whole campaign going called Kisco Confidence, which is designed to communicate to people why it’s safer to live with us than at home, in terms of cleanliness and protocols. We’re doing grocery shopping for people and all kinds of stuff.

There’s always going to be a segment of the population that doesn’t want to move in to a senior living community. We think Covid will change the dynamic a bit, and that some people will think that’s is safer living in a community than at home. We’ve done a survey of people who moved in with us during Covid. Most are saying they feel much safer in our community than at home. That’s obviously not everybody. There are people who have pulled their family members out of a community … and that’s fine. But our job as an industry and a company is to communicate very clearly why what we’re doing makes it safer to live in a community than at home.

Wages are probably not going down to pre-Covid levels, especially in the caregiving settings. Where we compete with hospitality and restaurants — dining servers, things like that — I think we can be a little more confident that [wages] won’t be going up as much as caregivers’.

In terms of revenue, we’ve been using dynamic pricing for two to three years now. We’re getting better at it. We have great systems to dynamic price monthly. We’re trying to find out what services we provided during Covid that people want long-term. Going out and getting groceries for residents, doing their personal shopping, does that continue past Covid? Me, for example, I love going to the store and drive in and they put [items] in the back of your car. I would love to do that post-Covid, rather than go in the store and muck around and check out and wait in line. Those are the kind of things that we’re looking at — that people decided, hey, this is a really good service, I’m going to pay for it, I like it, and we’re going to do it long-term.

Jim Gray, President of Bridgewood Property Company:

We will continue a trend started this summer in hiring many key staff positions from the hospitality industry. The senior living industry has rightfully been very focused on care, particularly during the pandemic, but often overlooks that residents are expecting (and deserving) superior lodging, dining, transportation, and activity services as well.

Our new director of hospitality brings over 15 years of experience from Hilton and Marriott luxury brands. We have also hired executive directors and marketing directors from the hospitality field this past year and will continue to do so in 2021.

A downturn provides opportunity to assess next steps for our current portfolio and future growth. We believe the current environment provides great opportunities to acquire sites for future development which had previously been unavailable. Bridgewood acquired a new site for a mid-rise urban senior living community in Charlotte, North Carolina last month and will be closing on a similar site in Tennessee upon receipt of zoning approvals in early 2021.

It is imperative that we do not reduce or pull back on the improved quality control standards implemented as a result of the pandemic. Many of these standards and protocols should be maintained going forward for the health and welfare of all residents and staff even after the Covid pandemic has subsided. As a result, we anticipate a significant reduction in seasonal flu outbreaks within our communities in future years.

Randy Bury, President and CEO of Evangelical Lutheran Good Samaritan Society:

We’ve got to get consumer confidence back. We have to convince the public that our buildings are safe places to be. Visitation requirements worked against us. They were necessary, we had to do them, but the public doesn’t like it and neither do we. But that’s created the impression that once you go in, you’re isolated.

A lot of it is getting the word out, and our sales and marketing team are working hard on a campaign to do that. Also, in the earned media category, we’ve been working really hard to tell positive stories, the wonderful stories of staff stepping up and creating ways to connect people. The isolation, the depression, those are real things, those are tangible downsides of our visitor restrictions, so I think the more you can do to communicate — Dr. Greg Johnson, our CMO, is having Facebook Live sessions for families to ask questions about what’s going on with the vaccine or anything else they have on their mind.

I think communication has never been more than it is right now, to get our message out and try to spread that word that this vaccine is real, it’s coming soon, and you can have confidence in the safety of our buildings.

Dwayne Clark, Founder and CEO of Aegis Living:

I think there’s this backlog of people that’s going to pump up occupancies. What’s compounding that is the fact that there’s been no development because finance has been on the sidelines. So, you’re going to see this dip where demand keeps going up, but product is not available. That’s really going to impact demand in the short-term and probably the mid-term. So, for the next six months to probably the next three years … that’s very good news for the industry.

I think the banks will get off the sidelines and probably in Q2 start lending back at close to normal terms again. And I think you’ll see in the fall of ‘21 some of the novices come back into the industry, because they’ll see that demand curve and they’ll see the lack of new product. I think that will be compelling to them.

I think you’ll see the veteran providers get more medically oriented. I think this pandemic has taught them that we deal with very sick people, and you have to have more medical professionals — that means nurses and doctors — on the front lines. That’s not typically been true in assisted living. We’re looking to hire a chief medical officer — we’ve had one before — so, we’re going that way.

I think you’ll see the industry becoming more wellness-oriented, not only [having] care providers, but everything from the way they design air filtration systems to foods; we’re looking at foods that help pump up the immune systems of residents and have hired our own registered dietitian, but we’re also reaching out to holistic providers and people that have dealt in the world of wellness and nutrition.

I think you’re going to see a psychiatric issue both with residents and staff around the pandemic. It’s going to last a long, long time. At Aegis, one of the things we’re doing is we’re offering a lot more counseling. We have seminars and podcasts with psychologist and psychiatrists, because I think the stress and trauma of this is going to be everlasting. It’s not going to go away.

Terri Cunliffe, President and CEO of Covenant Living:

For virtually everyone in senior living, 2021 couldn’t get here fast enough as we’ve all managed (and continue to manage) our way through the pandemic. We view the distribution of the coronavirus vaccine as a pinpoint of light at the end of the tunnel, yet there is a long way to go.

As we move into 2021, I think there are many lessons that we can build upon to even further strengthen our organization.

1) Continue to focus and build upon the employee experience. We know our employees are among our greatest assets and as we move forward, we will continue to build upon our relationship with employees through increased training and career opportunities, reward those for exceptional service and how to better retain employees we’ve already invested in.

2) We learned during the pandemic that the spirit of collaboration among our workforce at all levels has greatly improved. We’d like to continue capitalize on that spirit for the continued success of our operations and for service to our residents.

3) Covenant Living is going to take a deeper dive into telehealth and how it can make a difference in access to healthcare for our residents. While it has always been part of what is offered, increasing the ease of access to healthcare residents has become more evident during the pandemic.

4) And finally, while we’ve always communicated to our residents and employees, during the pandemic, outreach and communication was significantly increased. We released weekly video messages in the spring, which has evolved into a monthly video program called Covenant Life Today. The feedback we’re getting is that our residents welcome the open and frequent communications within each community or from our central office —either by video or through the written letters. We will keep the pace of those communications going and explore more ways to keep the lines of communication open.

Sara McVey, President and CEO, Sequoia Living:

History is being made in our industry, and we’re a part of it. I want to make sure we maximize that as much as we can.

People keep talking about the new normal and bouncing back, and we’ve really been saying somewhat the opposite. We want to create the “new next,” and we have no desire to bounce back, we want to bounce forward. We have some heavy lifting to do as an organization … to make that happen, there are some things we have to do differently.

The near-term focus is to strengthen our core. We did a strategic planning process this year. What we learned after a deep dive into what we currently do is that — while we may be really good at what we do, we need to grow our capacity to do what we do, so when we have an opportunity to get bigger, we can do it from a real, legitimate position of strength and leadership.

So, there are four priorities for 2021. To strengthen the core, which means stabilizing Viamonte and improving the operations of our current life plan communities. We did operational audits that identified where we’ve had service and cost creep. Those findings are integrated into the 2021 budget. We have very aggressive goals for this next year, even though it’s a Covid-type environment.

The second is really people power. We really need to make sure we’re filling the bench with superheroes and celebrating people. The talent and energy required to walk through the doors every day got a whole lot harder. And, sometimes, when you’ve been around a while you have people that have been in there, and times have changed, and you just need to make sure that you have the right people in the right place doing the right things at the right time.

The third is, we need to build our brand and re-state our value propositions. We changed our name in 2019, there was a CEO change that year, and then Covid hit. So, we really haven’t totally come out as Sequoia Living and talked about why we exist. The value proposition for all our locations, our senior centers, our affordable communities and our life plan communities, need to be rescripted. Because what was appealing yesterday is no longer, today.

The fourth priority is really just to control Covid. We know we can’t really control it, per se, but we can control our reaction and response to it. While we’re safeguarding our people, we also need to understand that we have to reactivate our programs.

I think “unlearning” is probably the biggest thing that needs to happen. When you’re in a chaotic environment, you white-knuckle the status quo. We just can’t do that. We really have to think about what is the “new next” that we are going towards. We can honor the past, but we can’t keep going back there … my perspective right now is, we have to be honest with ourselves and say, okay, we have to totally change how we’re doing things so we can survive long term, and when you’re already a financially strong organization like Sequoia, that urgency can be a little watered down. But Covid has given us a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to accelerate and get there faster. That’s really our goal for 2021.

With reporting by Tim Regan and Chuck Sudo

The post Executive Forecast 2021: A Rare Chance For Senior Living Reinvention appeared first on Senior Housing News.

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