Adapting to the new normal in senior housing
The senior housing industry has changed dramatically in the past 18 months, with much of the change driven by COVID-19.
During this time, providers have learned to be fluid, responding to varying and constantly changing guidance from federal, state, and local public health departments. Technology took center stage as a means to keep residents safe, healthy, and engaged with each other, their loved ones, and staff.
Additionally, frontline workers rose to the challenge in this daunting environment and were recognized with enhanced pay and benefits. Sales and marketing teams adapted to community restrictions on non-essential personnel and adopted virtual tours and sales strategies to continue courting prospective residents.
As the number of new COVID cases moves up and down, it’s becoming clear that there will be no return to a “pre-pandemic” normal. Providers face the work of rebuilding occupancy while also ensuring that residents, prospects, and their loved ones know that senior housing remains a safe and healthy environment.
With occupancy recovering from record low levels during the pandemic, and with recruiting and retention challenges rising, operators will be well served to consider a few recommendations for adapting to the “new” senior housing landscape ahead.
Rebuilding trust in the market
Although vaccines have proven their efficacy, concerns persist about the safety of senior housing. This is due in part to reports of COVID-19 outbreaks during the pandemic’s early weeks in which senior housing facilities were often conflated with nursing homes.
Providers quickly learned that full transparency was the best way to keep residents, prospects, and their families engaged and informed of the success of, and changes to, each community’s pandemic response.
Providers should share the health and safety strategies they have implemented within their facilities. Websites and marketing materials should be updated as often as possible, to make sure all visitors are appropriately educated on visitation policies and have the most up-to-date information. Providers also should share their success stories from the pandemic, such as infection and vaccination rates among residents and staff. All of these contribute to provider transparency.
Fostering a safe and healthy environment
Guidance from federal, state, and local public health departments on keeping senior housing communities safe from COVID-19 varied greatly. This forced providers to stay on top of what was a constantly fluid situation.
The pandemic also forced providers to take a hard look at existing policies and procedures for their facilities and campuses. This must continue. Consistent with maintaining transparency, providers need to outline updates to their safety protocols, such as revised visitation procedures, regular temperature checks, and testing protocols. This extends to vendors and contractors entering a building as well.
Enhancing the resident living experience
Senior care providers embraced technology during COVID-19 as a way to keep residents engaged with each other, their families, and staff during long stretches when they were quarantined in their apartments.
Moreover, many amenities such as dining rooms, fitness centers, and common areas were shut down completely for over a year, due to concerns of virus transmission.
While the pandemic persists, providers must use this as an opportunity to consider evolving the amenities within their buildings, adapt the best practices implemented during the pandemic, and institute programming that emphasizes health and wellness—such as walking programs—to keep the minds and bodies of residents active to prepare for the next extreme event.
In addition, remote monitoring services and telehealth platforms must become standard. These platforms allow primary care providers, specialists, and other clinicians to stay abreast of any changes to patients’ conditions without requiring an in-person visit, and align clinicians and caregivers within a community on a resident’s health.
Retaining staff and investing in growth
Even before COVID-19, the senior care industry struggled to recruit new talent, and retain seasoned professionals. The pandemic exacerbated the situation. Many providers turned to enhanced pay and benefits as an incentive.
COVID-19 should serve as a wake-up call for providers to take recruitment and retention seriously. To improve the ongoing workforce pressures, a commitment to transparency must extend to the workforce as well. Community leadership must use the present as an opportunity to gauge frontline workers on a range of issues, from job satisfaction to future career tracks, and show staff that leaders are committed to helping them achieve their career objectives any way they can.
Community leaders must also prioritize the health and wellbeing of their staffs. The past 18 months have been a crucible for frontline workers. Their needs must take priority, and that entails keeping them engaged and ensuring that they know they are valued contributors to the success of a community.
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