The senior living industry is still recovering from Covid-19 — but that doesn’t mean that the trend toward wellness-focused operational models has halted.
In fact, providers can and should build effective wellness programs in the midst of those challenges. Having executive leaders dedicated to wellness can help, as demonstrated by Vi and Arrow Senior Living.
Chicago-based Vi owns and manages 10 high-end life plan communities across the U.S., and St. Louis-based Arrow Senior Living operates 29 communities in five states. Both providers have employed “multi-dimensional” wellness programming that aid residents in a variety of ways, including physically, spiritually and mentally.
“Our ability to assist our residents and maintain an optimal level of wellness was severely impacted by the various quarantines and shutdowns,” said Arrow Senior Living Chief Wellness Officer Cora Butler during a recent Senior Housing News webinar. “It has required a lot of teamwork, it has required a lot of collaboration, it has required a lot of being creative and flexible.”
Arrow and Vi aren’t elevating their wellness programs during a pandemic with the intention of simply getting a leg up over their competitors now. They are doing so because many residents now desire these services when they move in — and that will become clearer as the baby boomers move into senior housing in the coming years.
Indeed, along with health system changes that have incentivized preventive services, consumer preferences are driving the wellness trend in senior living. The global wellness market is worth an estimated $1.5 trillion and is growing 5% to 10% annually, according to a recent McKinsey & Company report. The rise of fitness brands like Peloton, mindfulness apps like Headspace and the popularity of juice cleanses and nutrition coaches are just some of the facets of this huge market.
“There’s almost this pre-programming of wellness-based habits that is going to come with this generation,” said Tony Galvan, assistant vice president of Vi’s Living Well wellness program. “If providers and organizations don’t have … a way to articulate and identify your wellness program and the true content wealth and depth that makes up however you are framing your wellness program, you’re probably not going to be too successful with this demographic.”
Among the more challenging parts of the concept of wellness is defining it and giving it shape. The word conjures different images and thoughts to different people, so it’s important for senior living providers to define what wellness is and what it means. There are a variety of ways to do that, according to Galvan.
“Sometimes folks in the industry use wellness to be a little bit more on the clinical medical side, maybe others define it as more fitness or lifestyle activities and programs,” Galvan said. “That’s where I feel it’s important for organizations to have some sort of framework or some sort of a branded approach to how they’re defining and articulating their wellness programs.”
For example, Vi calls its wellness program Living Well, and defines the benefits for residents with a simple phrase: “mind, body and spirit.”
“For others it will be other dimensions of wellness, maybe you have six, nine, three, four — there’s no right or perfect number,” Galvan said.
Arrow, meanwhile, loosely defines wellness as the programs or method by which residents realize their goals.
“That can very well be the activities, that can be our engagement with families, that may be our engagement with our support partners or health agencies,” Butler said.
Wellness programs often encompass several different areas of community operations, including dining, fitness and activities. While many incoming residents come with preconceived notions about wellness as a concept, others do not. That’s why senior living providers should not only define the term for residents, but also educate them on the benefits of living well to help them connect the dots.
“That fitness class is part of your physical wellbeing, that brain health class as part of your cognitive wellbeing, this interactive program that we’re doing here is part of your spiritual social wellbeing,” Galvan said, as if he were speaking to a resident. “We have had to really pivot, be innovative and leverage technology and other communication methods to make sure that folks stay engaged.”
Defining wellness carries other benefits than just getting residents up to speed. A well-defined wellness program can also act as a powerful marketing tool for prospects and their families.
“Being able to describe and talk about your wellness program can provide a point of differentiation and distinction,” Galvan said. “That could absolutely … be a differentiator and part of what sways somebody toward one community versus another.”
Wellness was hard enough to achieve before the pandemic hit the senior living industry. With Covid-19 in the foreground, doing so has become even more complicated. But Vi and Arrow have employed flexibility, creativity and technology to bridge the gap until the coronavirus is in the rearview mirror.
Given the uncertainty and risk of the coronavirus delta variant, leaders with both Vi and Arrow noted the importance of flexibility in wellness programming.
For example, Arrow designed its wellness programs to adapt to the implementation of local Covid-19 restrictions or mandates, and is constantly evaluating “how we can better design and use our grounds so that they’re safer and lend themselves to outdoor gatherings or activities,” Butler said.
At the same time, the provider took to heart lessons from the Lean Six Sigma business approach of eliminating waste and maximizing efficiency. For example, the operator might try to reduce the distance frontline caregivers have to travel to document something in the community, or cluster high-acuity residents together to help workers save time when assisting them.
“It really makes a difference,” Butler said.
Like Arrow, Vi also evaluates its physical spaces for compatibility with resident wellness. That is especially true during new development or community renovations, according to Galvan. Number one, providers must take a “holistic approach” to wellness.
“You will have very specific common areas that serve a very specific purpose, and that’s maybe what we need to get away from,” he said.”And that is something that Vi is starting to do — having less designated areas, and more of multi-purpose types of areas where you can accomplish different things.”
Providers should also think about whether their communities offer opportunities for “informal, on-demand resident engagement.” Galvan used senior living fitness centers as an example of the concept at work.
“You might have some structure or programs in there, but at the same time, residents can walk in, walk on the treadmill or get on the NuStep and do some exercise,” Galvan said. “Applying that on-demand philosophy to all aspects of wellness and into as many amenities as possible, that’s where I think folks can really position themselves successfully for the future.”
Vi also tailors some of its wellness programs to work indoors or outdoors. Simply being out in nature can carry some wellness benefits for residents, he explained.
“And not everything has to be scheduled or programmed,” Galvan added. “To what extent can residents have accessibility and have the opportunity to go out there and accomplish wellness on their own?”
Technology also plays a role in maintaining resident wellness at Vi and Arrow. For instance, Arrow employs technologies that monitor resident falls and fall risks with artificial intelligence or help connect residents to their doctors via telemedicine. The company is also exploring the role that robotics could play in making its workforce more efficient.
“It’s not about replacing the humans, it is about giving the humans some better tools in order to make more efficient use of their time,” Butler said. “If we don’t as operators learn to use the technology — in particular that offered by AI and machine learning — then we’ll be very sorry.”
Perhaps harder than implementing technology, programming or designing spaces for wellness is getting buy-in from residents and staff. But building a wellness-oriented culture is doable — and well worth doing.
For example, at Vi “everyone is responsible for how our residents live well,” Galvan said. The provider also employs wellness committees at the community level that bring together department heads and frontline workers to plan for and evaluate resident wellness.
“While I might be a housekeeper, while I might be in dining, while I might be a clinician … here’s how I impact a resident’s mind, body or spirit,” Galvan said.
Operators can also wield tools like branding and consistency of language to build an effective culture of wellness, he said.
Butler works at Arrow to get employees out of their departmental “silos” and into more collaborative discussions with one another. At the end of the day, all employees should feel empowered to help instill wellness among residents — and unafraid of retribution or undue criticism if they make an honest mistake.
“We are selling every time somebody walks in that door, and what we’re selling is the way we interact with the residents,” Butler said. “So we can’t be so rigid and so focused that we don’t allow for people to make some decisions.”
Even more important than building a culture of wellness among staff is building one among residents. Under an effective wellness program, residents have a stake in their own wellbeing and act as advocates for their own health.
Like Arrow, Vi aims to accomplish this by presenting new residents with a wellness plan based on their own goals. When they make progress, the operator shows them through data.
“You actually are getting better … but you’re also not declining at the rate that we might expect you to decline because you are actually engaging in some of these programs,” Galvan said, mimicking what one might say to a resident. “Hopefully that incentivizes some of our residents to stick with their wellness program.”
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