Covid-19 has changed the state of play, but that doesn’t mean other long-term forces have stopped shaping the senior living industry.
In addition to a deadly pandemic, senior living providers must also contend with the evolving preferences of the baby boomers, along with the lingering effects of recent supply-demand imbalances in markets across the country — all in the next 24 months or so. And if the industry hopes to rebound from these challenging times in the foreseeable future, it’s going to take a realization that some things must change, according to Richard Hutchinson, CEO of Bonita Springs, Florida-based Discovery Senior Living.
“The question of whether or not in 2021 we’re going to have recovered occupancy completely depends on whether or not our companies, and the industry, recognize the inflection point we’re at and make … adjustments,” Hutchinson said during a panel discussion at Argentum’s Senior Living Executive Conference, which is being held virtually this week.
Hutchinson is not the only CEO with that mindset. Leaders from other companies, including Brookdale Senior Living, Senior Star and Ascension Living, are tackling the moment with an eye toward change and innovation, and have altered their operations to fit the new pandemic age.
For some providers, this has meant doubling down on disclosure to keep residents, their families and associates satisfied during a tough time. For others, it has meant focusing on new operational models for the post-pandemic age, or facilitating the use of technologies that keep people connected when they’re physically separated due to an infectious disease.
‘Hungry for information’
For many senior living residents and their families, Covid-19 felt like a sea change. Awash in a torrent of negative headlines about long-term care settings, some consumers began to question whether senior living companies were taking the right measures to protect themselves or their loved ones against the coronavirus.
While Brookdale CEO Cindy Baier believes families today have a generally positive view of senior living, those early news stories did pose challenges related to consumer sentiment. To get ahead of those negative sentiments, the Brentwood, Tennessee-based senior living provider shared information about its response to Covid-19, and about general practices for being safe during the pandemic.
“Consumers are just hungry for information,” Baier said during the panel discussion. “We have posted over the course of the last six or seven months an extensive library of videos with new information as it becomes available … and that has really helped with consumer perception.”
Brookdale also created a national advisory council composed of some of its residents. The council holds regular Zoom calls with Brookdale’s senior leadership team, and provides actionable and qualitative feedback, helping the company see which services they’re pleased with and gain more visibility into its more than 700 communities across the country.
“I do think it’s going to take some time for consumer perception to completely recover,” Baier said. “But I think that the heroic efforts of our industry will ultimately prevail.”
Hutchinson agrees the industry has done a good job educating consumers about the benefits of senior living during a pandemic, and he believes today’s challenges could give way to opportunities in the future if the industry continues to prove its worth.
“I actually think we could come out of this in an enhanced value proposition to families,” Hutchinson said. “A lot of folks early on in this pandemic thought the best course of action was to hunker down … and, quickly, the country found out that’s not a great idea.”
Like residents, senior living associates are also hungry for information, according to Senior Star CEO Anja Rogers. The Tulsa, Oklahoma-based provider — which has ranked among the top Great Place to Work companies for senior housing — has relied on transparency and empowerment as a way to gain workers’ trust during a challenging and sometimes scary time.
The company has conducted frequent surveys with associates and families throughout the pandemic, and created specialty teams to handle operational issues as they arose.
“You cannot tell them fast enough that there was a positive case, in their wing on their floor in their building,” Rogers said. “We have to make sure that everyone is feeling their value, feeling purposeful, feeling involved and feeling like they can be successful.”
Looking ahead, Rogers believes that by keeping associates happy, flattening its organizational structure and targeting its hiring, the company can “do more with less.”
“We believe we can employ less and then offer more. I’d like to see a $15 minimum with all of our associates moving forward,” Rogers said. “I think if they can have a healthy financial relationship with their employer, and not have to have two or three jobs … it’s going to be the best thing [for our industry].”
Ascension Living, the senior care subsidiary of St. Louis-based non-profit health system Ascension, also emphasized transparency amid the pandemic, according to President Danny Stricker.
“That transparency, and communicating with our families frequently like others, I think also had a good impact for our brands and the trust that we have with our … residents and our associates,” Stricker said.
The senior living industry has also found itself making more disclosures to the federal government. Earlier this year, a group of Congressional lawmakers including Sen. Elizabeth Warren set out to probe the private-pay assisted living industry about its Covid-19 measures by seeking information from the country’s largest providers. The response from legislators was that the industry is “doing a pretty dang good job,” Hutchinson said.
“We are on their radar. That’s a win,” he added. “We spent six months making sure they understood who we were, and identifying that we were appropriately in need of some assistance.”
That said, the industry will need to continue to spend resources and time advocating for itself and keeping that relationship going.
“I think we have a great ability to show that our outcomes are highly correlated to the manner in which we are regulated, which is at the state level,” Hutchinson said. “And I think that’s all positive, but we’re going to have to have that fight and educate.”
Focus on health care and choice
While the pandemic has disrupted some of the paradigms of senior living, it has also opened up avenues for providers to embrace new operational models or double down on existing ones.
For instance, Ascension Living has embraced telehealth as a way to connect residents with their doctors and expedite their care.
“The physician integration in telehealth capabilities, we certainly feel that has removed barriers that we had in the past from transportation [and from] wait times, and as well as [connecting residents to] physicians that would never come to our site,” Stricker said.
Senior Star has also seen telehealth use rise in its communities — and where residents were perhaps a little nervous about using it before, they are now all-in, according to Rogers.
Both Brookdale and Discovery have leveraged home health services during the pandemic to great effect. Discovery in particular has seen an “immense” increase in private-duty home health requests.
“Health care in senior living, I believe, is going to be more and more prevalent,” Baier said. “And because we’re at the higher-acuity end of senior living, we certainly see it as critically important.”
Before Covid-19, Discovery was already pivoting to an “experiential living” model that provides residents with more choice and options to customize their care. The pandemic has only acted as an accelerant for that shift.
“We think by doing that, we’ll be able to provide a lower price point, and then maybe offset some of those [negative] sentiments … by offering a customized product to a larger portion of the demographic,” Hutchinson said.
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