Having opened four communities in 2021 while regaining all occupancy lost during the pandemic and adding further census, Koelsch Communities is emerging from Covid-19 on a strong footing.
That’s according to Eva Arant, COO of the Olympia, Washington-based provider that operates a portfolio of about 40 communities across eight states.
Koelsch is also innovating rapidly. The provider pushed forward with a slew of technological initiatives and new partnerships in 2020, in response to pandemic-related challenges.
“We had to find really creative ways to keep residents engaged, keep our staff safe and communicate with families,” Arant told Senior Housing News.
The company is also taking multiple steps to address current workforce challenges, including a new talent acquisition position and expanded recruiting efforts, while doubling-down on efforts to hire people that are a good fit for Koelsch’s culture.
And at Koelsch, culture starts at the top, Arant said. President and CEO Aaron Koelsch is carrying on the legacy of his parents — industry pioneers Emmett and Alice Koelsch — with a personal touch. For instance, he sends handwritten notes to every team member he meets in the company’s communities.
“When you start as an executive at Koelsch, you get a stack of books, one of which is about the importance of and how to write handwritten cards and notes,” Arant said. “Aaron always — every day of his life — is writing notes to somebody.”
Expansion and innovation
After Covid-19 vaccines became widely available early in 2021, Koelsch quickly began to recover occupancy lost during the previous year.
“From March forward, we’ve had really good net-positive growth every month,” Arant said.
Today, Koelsch has nearly doubled occupancy from pandemic levels, she said.
The company, which is vertically integrated with a construction arm, has also opened new communities. Koelsch’s reputation is built largely on its memory care offering, and three memory care communities have come online in the last 12 months:
— An 80-bed community in Kirkland, Washington
— A 72-bed community in Elk Grove, California
— A 72-bed community in Puyallup, Washington
Koelsch increasingly has been adding independent living and assisted living offerings, building out continuum-of-care options on a given campus or in a particular market area. This effort includes 135 units of independent living in Elk Grove, slated to open next month.
And looking further ahead, a $98 million, 129,000-square-foot community with 76 memory care and 80 assisted living units is under development in Bellevue, Washington, with a spring 2022 opening date. In Vancouver, Washington, a $108 million project dubbed University Village is set to include 26 cottages, 138 independent living units and 101 assisted living units, also with a 2022 completion date.
Koelsch’s occupancy gains and its portfolio expansion go hand-in-hand with operational innovations, many of which were implemented in 2020. These tech pilots and new partnerships include:
— Humanitude, an organization that trains caregivers on more than 150 techniques based on four care “pillars” of gaze, speech, touch and verticality (being upright)
— S3 Balance devices to help residents gain strength, and reduce falls and two-person transfers
— Evolve, a company that employs master’s-level social workers to field calls from memory care residents whose families are not immediately available
— Zinnia TV, through which memory care residents can watch soothing television content, and receive and watch videos from loved ones
— Inspire Senior Care, which brings master’s-level social workers into communities to do brain games and other cognitive exercises with residents
— Joe and Bella, a company that makes adaptive clothing and shoes for residents, and was founded by the family member of a Koelsch resident
— Entryway UV lighting for infection control, and other technology to streamline the process of entering a community while screening for safety
— Familio, through which family members and residents can exchange photos and other content, and staff can print a “gazette” of content each week
— Puree with Purpose, applying techniques so that pureed food items appear not to be pureed
Benjamin Surmi, Koelsch’s director of education and culture, finds and researches these types of partnerships and technologies. The Koelsch team then discusses their potential, and launches targeted pilots to test them on the ground — being careful not to overload any one community with too many new initiatives at once, Arant said, acknowledging the danger of “pilot fatigue.”
Familio, for example, began as a pilot at a single memory care community, then was tested in assisted living, and then on a company-wide basis for six months — all at no cost — before Koelsch signed a contract.
As of late July, 1,400 family members were enrolled on Familio, they had sent about 30,400 messages, and Koelsch had printed 5,165 gazettes for residents.
While the number of pilots and other initiatives was unusually high in 2020 due to the pandemic, the philosophy of innovation is driving decision-making at the company as it positions for the next generation of consumers, Arant said.
And while memory care is still an innovation hotbed at Koelsch, she and her colleagues are striving to elevate operations for every level of service and care. For instance, the company partnered with Darren McGrady — formerly the private chef to Diana, Princess of Wales — to enhance culinary operations across the whole portfolio.
“Younger people are moving into independent living — you have to cater and give them a different experience,” Arant observed.
Responding to the workforce crisis
Senior living providers across the United States are contending with a worsening workforce crisis, involving a shortage of staff and rising labor costs.
Current challenges trace back to the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. For Koelsch, turnover was “high” as staff left the industry in 2020, due to fear of Covid-19, the need to care for family, burnout and other factors, Arant said.
Now, turnover is more stable but recruitment is still daunting.
“During the pandemic … we really bolstered our HR department, and we brought on a new position, talent acquisition,” Arant said.
Koelsch has enhanced “all the ways you can connect with people,” she said — from LinkedIn to Monster to Indeed. The company has also partnered with clinical sites, nursing schools, CNA schools and other institutions, and is taking steps to reach people who are looking for new careers. In addition, the company is running a bonus program related to retention.
In late July, Arant helped lead a session on staffing at the American Seniors Housing Association (ASHA) meeting in Lake Tahoe. One takeaway for her was the need for mental health programs to help workers process trauma related to the pandemic. And, the session drove home the scope and difficulty of the workforce challenges facing the industry.
One message that Arant emphasized was the importance of culture, and not rushing the hiring process despite the sharp need for workers.
Koelsch has been utilizing video testimonials from current workers as part of its efforts to market job opportunities, and also leverages that content in the interview process. Interviewers ask whether candidates watched the videos and what resonated with them.
“You have every company in town hiring, what made you want to come interview with us, what about us felt special to you?” Arant said, about the line of questioning. “Try and find out what their values are, to make sure they align with ours.”
Hiring the wrong people can have swift, detrimental effects.
“Staff want to bring on a good team member — they’ll say, ‘Don’t hire anybody unless they’re right. We’ll cover [in the meantime], but bring us a teammate that’s going to stay and make us stronger,’” Arant said.
The Koelsch culture prioritizes treating every person with dignity and respect, and the company’s core values are printed on cards that team members can carry with them. When CEO Aaron Koelsch visits a community, he sometimes asks staff members if they know and can quote those values — if they can, they are rewarded on the spot with a gift card. And they subsequently receive a handwritten note.
“It means a lot to our staff, because he acknowledges them personally,” Arant said.
And as a culture-building practice, the notes have opened up lines of communication, as people respond by writing back to him.
“He’ll tell us how he has boxes of notes people have written him; he never throws any of them away,” Arant said. “Human touch — contact — is so important to us.”
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