Senior living providers have grappled with many hardships due to Covid-19, but since the first state lockdown orders went out in mid-March, they have also amassed a wealth of knowledge around fighting the deadly disease.
Today, many of them feel more confident that they can keep the disease out of their communities, or at least mitigate its spread if that happens.
Just ask Jim Biggs, CEO of West Bay Senior Living. When several residents tested positive at The Carrington at Lincolnwood, a community West Bay manages in Lincolnwood, Illinois, things escalated fast.
“Once it hit, it came incredibly quick,” Biggs said Tuesday on a webinar hosted by New York City-based architecture and design firm Perkins Eastman. “In a two-week period, we went from zero cases to 13 residents and 13 staff.”
But in the months since, West Bay has honed its approach to dealing with Covid-19. Here is what that company and others across the senior living industry have learned about adapting operations for the pandemic era, from culinary services to marketing.
Wear many hats
When Covid-19 hit The Carrington at Lincolnwood, Biggs recalled staff members feeling “abject terror” at the disease’s unknowns.
“Good, caring people just kind of froze in their tracks,” Biggs recalled. “Thirty-five of them chose not to come to work at all, and needed some extended time.”
At the same time, many of the community’s workers were being pulled in multiple directions. Carrington had most of its staffers focus on fundamentals like food and medication for residents, while its medical director began visiting with every resident in the community every other day. But that left the community stretched thin when it came to labor.
“We didn’t have as many staff as we normally did, and we didn’t want too many people coming into AL or memory care, as that’s where the outbreak was,” Biggs said.
Faced with a local staffing shortage, Biggs — who lived in the community until earlier this month — rolled up his sleeves and began filling in where needed.
Among Bigg’s top takeaways: when faced with a crisis, be prepared to do many jobs to support the community.
“I delivered the mail and the packages, I brought ice cream over for both staff and residents, and yes, I walked the dog,” Biggs said. “And I would get as many as 50 to 55 calls a day from family members wanting to know what was going on.”
Today, the community is on better footing with regard to Covid-19. And although Carrington is still seeing isolated cases here and there, Biggs feels like he and the community’s staff have tried their best, and made a difference for residents in the process. And, he has come away with a real sense that senior living is more than just being “like a big cruise ship.”
“Recognize that if you’re in the senior living business, you’re in the care business,” Biggs said.
Embrace flexibility, think smaller
The rapid onset of the Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated just how quickly things can change — and senior living providers should take that lesson to heart, according to Alexis Denton, an associate principal with Perkins Eastman.
Specifically, Denton recommends providers strive to make common spaces and resident units more flexible.
“In [resident] apartments, it’s really about the mix, how they’re broken up, and how we can change them quickly based on market conditions,” Denton said. “An example of that in assisted living is we can design units that can flex from a one-bedroom to two studios, or vice versa.”
Perkins Eastman is also thinking about how it can design senior living common spaces differently so that communities are not as centralized.
“We may want to start looking at models that are hybrids, where it’s a mix of some larger-scale, centralized amenities, and then more decentralized amenities to allow for socialization within pods or smaller groups,” Denton said.
And providers would do well to pay attention to the successes of small-house senior housing communities, which seem to be seeing better clinical outcomes than some of their larger counterparts. Denton doesn’t think that means abandoning the so-called big-box assisted living model as it exists today, but instead finding a way to marry the two concepts.
“It’s likely that there’s a hybrid model for assisted living that takes the best of a small-house community and applies it to a variety of scales,” Denton said. “And ultimately, we could also be looking at smaller scale developments in urban areas or even in suburban areas.”
Go with the flow
Since the outset of Covid-19, Benchmark Senior Living has learned to “follow the flow.”
Put another way, the Waltham, Massachusetts-based senior living provider now understands more about how air flows through its communities. And the company has made a few adjustments based on its findings, such as swapping out HEPA filters and increasing air exchange inside of its communities.
The company also began “zoning” its units, according to Denise McQuaide, president and COO of Benchmark’s wellness management division.
“We put up infection barriers during the Covid crisis to separate units,” McQuaide said during the webinar Tuesday. “And in the future, we really need to design so that we can contain smaller areas more naturally, particularly in our memory care units.”
McQuaide also recommends that providers look into repurposing rooms to become more flexible spaces. And the company is leaning more on technology that lets residents stay connected with loved ones even as they are separated physically.
“We’re doing all the right things,” McQuaide said. “But the mental trauma that something like this has caused, particularly for memory care residents in being separated from their loved ones, is not lost on any of us in the industry.”
Take culinary programming virtual
For many providers, culinary programming went by the wayside when the pandemic forced communities into lockdown earlier this year. But there may be ways to make things like kitchen demonstrations virtual, according to Adam Grafton, vice president of culinary at Atlanta-based hospitality services company Morrison Living.
“One thing I would say is, have you considered a virtual teaching kitchen?” Grafton said during the webinar. “The ability to televise your chefs from your community cooking a dish and tying it to wellness while educating residents [takes] it a step further.”
Communities should also consider breaking down isolation barriers by adding a more human touch to their dining services, such as by leaving a message in residents’ takeout orders or on their door knobs. Morrison does this as part of a campaign called “Serving Smiles.”
“It’s the simple things we can do that tell our residents we’re thinking of them and caring about them,” Grafton said.
Find empathy in marketing
Since the outset of Covid-19, almost everything has changed about the way senior living communities are marketing to prospective residents and their loved ones, according to Sharon Brooks, principal at LBC Marketing and former president of GlynnDevins’ East Coast operations.
“We pride ourselves on being non-institutional and offering a residential model with a true sense of community,” Brooks said. “And Covid-19 has forced us to really reverse directions, and to focus on the clinical.”
With no major treatment or vaccine in sight, providers are likely on this trajectory for the long haul. And as expenses rise and revenues fall for some providers, there is no time to wait for the world to change.
“The reality is that marketing really can’t wait for a vaccine. Our occupancy would just drop too precipitously, we wouldn’t be able to go on,” Brooks said.
Covid-19 is a hard time for senior living residents and their families, and senior living providers must be empathetic to those challenges if they want to craft an effective marketing message.
“Aligning with where your prospects are from an emotional perspective — and also in terms of their expectations, their fears and their hopes — is just essential,” Brooks said.
The pandemic has also pushed many companies to embrace more technology in their marketing, such as by taking tours virtual, and that is something more providers should consider in the weeks and months ahead.
“For example, have a counselor do a video guided tour, and include resident greetings and resident testimonials and staff testimonials in that video, so that it feels like … a walkthrough even though it’s done virtually,” Brooks said.
And, senior living providers should be prepared to share with prospective residents and their families exactly how they’ve prepared for the pandemic and what they’re doing to keep residents safe.
“Tell that story of what you’re doing and what you will be doing moving forward to make communities safe for residents and for families,” Brooks said.