Despite encouraging signs that the senior housing industry is responding better to the coronavirus pandemic, the virus is not expected to go away anytime soon and will continue to reverberate across the industry for the foreseeable future.
Operators will continue to be pressured by increased expenses; grapple with ensuring the safety of residents, employees and families; and scramble for technology solutions that can be implemented in communities.
When the pandemic eventually ends, operators that erred on the side of transparency will find themselves positioned to capitalize on pent-up demand, and more providers will explore merging technology with clinical services, according to experts who spoke Thursday on a webinar hosted by the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care (NIC).
For the time being, however, the industry needs to realize that there will be no “return to normal” in the short-term, Aegis Living founder and CEO Dwayne Clark said.
“I think we’re going to be in a Covid-19 crisis for [another] 18 months. I think it’s another 18 months of pain. And so you’re going to have to figure out how to operate, how to be the safest place on the planet,” he said.
Strong company culture pays off
The pandemic is proving out the adage that operators focused on developing strong workforce cultures are best equipped to respond to the disruption caused by the virus.
SageLife Senior Living is reaping the benefits of a transparent workforce culture during the pandemic, President Kelly Cook Andress said. The Springfield, Pennsylvania-based operator’s portfolio includes seven communities in Maryland, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
SageLife communicated to its staff early what was being done to protect them and residents as the pandemic spread. Leadership proactively acquired personal protective equipment (PPE), and keeping staff and residents updated on shelter-in-place orders, guidance from public health departments and what the operator is doing to improve engagement and communications with the outside world.
The most important bond in a community is the one between resident and employees — one that predates Covid-19 — and providers cannot manufacture a positive culture under duress, Andress noted.
“You earn your culture before you need it,” she said.
Aegis has also benefited from having a strong culture and a commitment to transparency — its leaders have been outspoken since the pandemic began, sharing their experiences and lessons learned. Based in Bellevue, Washington, Aegis operates 32 assisted living and memory care communities, including nearly 20 in Washington state.
As the scale of the threat posed by Covid-19 became apparent in early March, Aegis leadership held meetings with staff in its communities to gauge their primary concerns, such as finding access to childcare, groceries and supplies for families and leveraging telehealth to continue treating residents in the communities, and to find solutions to those problems.
Those discussions have continued as the pandemic has gone on. Currently, Aegis is hosting a series on the psychological impact of Covid-19 on staff. Psychiatrists host virtual sessions where staff have the opportunity to vent their frustrations and concerns about their experiences during the crisis.
Aegis has increased its transparency. Clark usually holds three to four all-hands meetings annually. Those have increased to every two to three weeks. He and executive leadership will update staff on positive Covid-19 cases across the portfolio, new technology launching in communities, and review Aegis’ current economic situation. Clark invites employees’ families to call in to these meetings, as well.
“I think that transparency goes a long way,” he said.
Wise technology investments
The pandemic has ripped the door wide open for technology providers to gain a foothold in the industry. But both Aegis and SageLife are taking a prudent approach to adopting new tech platforms.
“We can fall in love with the sexy appeal of technology. And that may outweigh the practicality of it,” Clark said.
Aegis is looking at leveraging tech to improve disinfection and sanitation across its portfolio, such as UV lighting and techniques pioneered by the airline industry. The operator is working with a company called Molekule, which provides high-grade filters for surgical ventilation systems. It established a virus council made up of virus trackers, immunologists, psychologists and gerontologists tasked with staying on top of the latest developments in vaccines, treatments and impact of the virus on the population.
Aegis is also in the process of hiring a chief medical officer, who will be tasked with better integrating the operator’s tech platform with health care and science.
“That’s one of the areas that as an industry, we’re pretty weak. We haven’t brought science and medicine to the table. We have to provide good, good science based answers to these problems,” Clark said.
SageLife sees promise in expanding telehealth technology across its communities. Andress noted that local leadership and doctors have become more comfortable using telehealth to assess resident health, and that residents and their families are more inclined to embrace telehealth if there is a nurse advising the resident.
This is showing rewards in better medication management and fewer emergency room visits.
But there are areas for improvement. Andress singled out wearable technology as an area that is lagging.
“Hopefully, all of our technology providers out there are going to push us,” she said.