Bad Senior Living Headlines Call for Industry-Wide Crisis Response

As several senior living providers have experienced of late, crisis management is an essential component of operating a business, and it’s even more prevalent for those providers who work with a frail and aging population. 

Those who are directly responsible for the crisis will likely respond in one way. But a crisis for one community could become a less-visible crisis for every community offering the same services, such as in the case of a 2008 wrongful death case involving an Emeritus community that recently sparked national news coverage of assisted living.

There are definite tried-and-true practices when it comes to putting crisis management procedures into play, largely depending on the situation, says Helio Fred Garcia, professor of crisis management at New York University. They apply to many of the recent situations that have made headlines among assisted living communities and about the industry in general. 


“The general principal is that organizations typically maintain trust and confidence—and can even be forgiven when people die—if they seem to care,” Garcia says of the Emeritus case.

That maintaining of trust and confidence might take the course of an apology followed by prescribed steps toward never allowing the situation to take place again.

“The key for any kind of institution is not merely to say that they care but to be seen to be caring,” Garcia says. “It’s an even bigger challenge if they say all the right things to show they care but behave in a way to show they don’t. A general rule of good crisis managment is that demonstration needs to be aligned with assertion.”


There are typically three main sources of crisis that businesses encounter. 

In the first case, something happens because of the company’s action or inaction, Garcia says. A wrongful death decision as in the Emeritus case serves as an example. A second type of crisis arises when someone does something to a company or community that occurs outside of the organization’s control. The third is a change in the business environment or landscape where consumer expectations are different. 

A recent PBS/Propublica story on the Emeritus case could serve as an example of this third type. 

“That’s the crisis most people miss,” Garcia says. 

Identifying the crisis is the first step, then comes dealing with it—a process which begins by identifying the stakeholders and responding to them accordingly. 

For some senior living providers, that means company shareholders; for all it means residents and family members of residents as well as regulators.

“When you think about the stakeholders who matter to you, what would a responsible member of that group appropriately expect a responsible organization to do when facing this kind of challenge?” Garcia says. “That’s the most productive question to ask.”

The answer may not be obvious, and the company should consider what a “responsible organization” would be expected to do—rather than the specific organization confronting the crisis. The answer may not be the same, Garcia says. 

With the Propublica coverage extending nationwide and having the potential to impact several types of stakeholders, the industry has the potential to respond to the crisis on the community level as well as the industry level.

“When some happens to an industry leader… then every other entity is at risk of having some stakeholder questions,” Garcia says. 

Companies throughout the senior living business will likely be responding to the stakeholders they encounter, as it is likely they are all impacted by the incident and the subsequent media coverage. 

“Typically companies are more aware when they have a problem they caused, or something happens to them. They may be not as aware in an environment that is less acute and less likely to get management’s attention right away,” Garcia says. “If a stakeholder thinks it has to do with you, it has.” 

Written by Elizabeth Ecker