The Covid-19 pandemic has put overwhelming pressures on senior living providers — and some are offering additional psychological health services as a way to help residents, staff and family members cope in the meantime.
While many senior living communities are well-equipped to deal with the physical care of their residents, they don’t always have the tools to address their mental wellbeing. Those shortcomings are only exacerbated by the social distancing and isolation measures required by the Covid-19 pandemic. All the while, some senior living residents are prone to anxiety and depression, two conditions very likely worsened by the new Covid-19 reality.
Covid-19 has driven demand for a variety of products and services in senior living, with technology providers in areas such as telehealth seeing huge surges in demand. But at least one company that provides behavioral health support to senior living providers believes that the pandemic is also changing providers’ viewpoints on this service.
Melville, New York-based WellQor Management Services employs part- and full-time counselors who work with more than 150 communities nationwide, including some operated by Brookdale Senior Living (NYSE: BKD), Sunrise Senior Living, Carlton Senior Living and New Perspective Senior Living.
In March, WellQor launched a new program to help residents, staff and loved ones deal with the fear and anxiety brought on by Covid-19. To help facilitate that, the company also set up a new crisis support hotline inspired by a similar one set up in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. And the company has made available video and telephone consultation services as the pandemic forces people farther apart.
In general, the Covid-19 crisis has precipitated a shift in thinking among many senior living providers regarding when and how to use behavioral health services, according to WellQor CEO David Schwam.
“Our focus had been on being reactive … much like they would dispatch a podiatrist if a resident has a bunion, [senior living leaders] were viewing our role as a vendor in a similar capacity,” Schwam told Senior Housing News. “Now the shift is taking place where some of these communities are saying, wait a minute, we need to integrate behavioral health into the normal operations of our business.”
‘The anxiety, the fear, the loss’
WellQor’s Covid-19 program is aimed at helping staff and residents manage all of the new stressors of the pandemic.
For staff, counselors help manage the anxiety, fear and frustration that comes with their role as a health care provider in the middle of a health crisis and the burnout that can result. For residents, the program can help deal with the emotional toll of isolation; reframe unhealthy thoughts or feelings of lack of control and hopelessness; and deal with anger. And for families, the program can help normalize and validate concerns.
Typically, one WellQor counselor will serve an entire community through in-person or telehealth visits. They come from a variety of therapy backgrounds but are usually social workers and psychologists. All of them are trained specifically to deal with older adults and their specific needs, according to Candace Williams, WellQor’s director of clinician development.
“We get to know the community as a whole,” Williams told SHN. “Each community has its own flavor and has its own story that you don’t get if you’re only seeing one or two people.”
WellQor also recently launched a crisis support hotline, where senior living staff, residents or their families from across the country can call and talk to a trained counselor when they need reassurance or validation.
“Let’s say I’m anxious about Mom, and I just need a suggestion of what to do,” Williams said as an example of what the hotline offers. “[Or], I just need to talk to someone for a couple minutes because I’m just feeling a little anxious.”
The hotline was inspired by Williams’ work setting up a Red Cross crisis hotline in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks in New York City.
“We know from 9/11, our world looked a lot different afterward,” Williams said. “And from this, it will too. But we got through that and we’ll get through this.”
One company that has benefitted from WellQor’s services is Fresh Coast Partners, a senior living provider that operates three properties and houses about 100 older adults in Kenosha, Wisconsin. While the provider began working with a WellQor counselor on a part-time basis in early 2020, it decided to make the relationship full-time when the Covid-19 pandemic ramped up in early March.
“She works with our residents and our families in trying to work through the challenges of what this Covid-19 pandemic has caused: the anxiety, the fear, the loss,” Fresh Coast co-founder Colleen Endsley told Senior Housing News. “It’s not only helping the folks that are living with us, but also the folks that are there to take care of those individuals.”
For example, WellQor’s counselor helped one staff member deal with their fear of wearing a protective face mask, something that Fresh Coast’s associates must now do inside the community at all times. Another resident was able to stay in touch with their counselor after they moved into a rehabilitation setting, helping them calm anxiety about staying in an unfamiliar place.
While using WellQor has amounted to a new added expense for the small provider, the benefits outweigh the financial cost, Endsley added. And, it’s a way for Fresh Coast to make sure its workers and residents are getting the emotional help they need during a difficult time.
“Something that small is really helpful to us when we’re trying to keep moving in this everyday-changing world right now,” Endsley said. “It’s just those little things that I hear on a day to day basis that reassures me we made the right decision.”