Rethinking resident engagement in senior living is a hot button topic during Covid-19. A lack of interaction in communities under lockdowns can lead to isolation, which can result in worse health outcomes for residents.
But rethinking engagement in the Covid-19 era extends beyond resident wellness. Everyone in a resident’s orbit – families, frontline workers and leadership, and the C-suite – has stakes in ensuring positive outcomes during trying times. And though technology is part of the solution, transparency and communication, along with some ingenuity, play larger roles.
This is according to executives with Senior Star, Vi Living and Watercrest Senior Living, who shared their insights and best practices during the 2020 Argentum Senior Living Virtual Conference.
The first lesson for providers: The fluid nature of Covid-19 requires flexible strategies.
“We are constantly adapting to the new normal, [because] the new normal keeps changing,” Watercrest Senior Living Senior Vice President of Operations Whitney Lane said.
Opening communication channels
Engagement was on the minds of providers across the country as the virus disrupted the industry in March and April. As communities went into lockdowns, the link between purposeful connections and engagement was severed, Senior Star COO Karen Doering said.
The first thing the Tulsa, Oklahoma-based provider did was create a “connectivity sheet” outlining who needed to be involved, what their relationships were to residents, where they were located, and when they needed to get involved.
Determining “who” was critical.
“The who was not just residents anymore,” Doering said. “It was going to have to be resident families; resident families with our leadership; the corporate office with our leadership; the corporate office with our associates.”
From there, the “what,” “where” and “when” fell in line, and Senior Star moved on to plotting how to improve connectivity between the stakeholders, how to communicate with them, how often, and what its messaging will be.
Communication was, and remains, an evolving process. Initially, the focus on Senior Star’s Covid-19 engagement centered around safety protocols. Eventually, the company recognized that emotional and mental well-being would be essential to future communication and, by extension, improved engagement. Frontline workers were given platforms to maintain constant communication with their supervisor, and each other, regarding processes and statuses of residents. This allowed for rapid responses and more purposeful connections between residents and staff.
“We’ve become an extension of the family. This has built trust and credibility [with families],” Doering said.
Throughout the pandemic, providers have adjusted their programming as more is learned about the virus, and as regions of the country enter phased reopening plans. This has pushed programming directors to be more creative with their wellness plans, and their programming calendars.
In March, Vero Beach, Florida-based Watercrest immediately pivoted from large group activities to individual activities. As the company got a handle on the virus, it graduated to activities for groups of 10 or fewer people, which was an eye-opener.
Lane conducted check-ins with community leaders to assess the progress of the smaller activities, and was surprised to learn that most residents preferred to remain in their apartments.
“We’ve had to adapt again and say, our next ‘new normal’ is a mixture between individual programming and group programming,” she said.
To find the right balance, technology played a role in helping programming directors assess underutilized tools and procedures, pre-pandemic, which were now essential to their ability to program activities based on residents’ needs. An example of this is using the community messaging system to hold book club meetings simultaneously for small groups and residents who prefer to remain in their living units.
Another common practice for Watercrest and other providers is the use of mobile carts which can be rolled from apartment to apartment, and provide residents with everything from ice cream socials and happy hours, to karaoke competitions and theme nights.
Watercrest’s programming directors resisted the urge to trash their pre-pandemic activities calendars, and looked for ways to modify activities to conform with the new restrictions and public health guidelines.
As a result, field trips to restaurants were out, but meals from those restaurants were delivered to communities. Mobile carts were employed with tablets to help residents set up telehealth appointments.
Addressing family isolation
Providers need to remember that residents are not alone in feeling the effects of isolation.
“We have to remember that the families have been isolated from the residents, as well,” Lane said.
Watercrest and other providers are incorporating resident engagement platforms to update activity calendars, record attendance, and update families with multimedia mass messages of residents attending activities, and how they were engaged.
“That shows how much we still care that their loved ones are still socialized and engaged within our community,” Lane said.
Communication will continue to be the main driver in satisfactory engagement, as operations continue to stabilize, Vi Living Assistant Vice President of Living Well Tony Galvan said. That could mean less frequent communications between communities and families, as residents adapt to their new environments and increase their engagement with neighbors and associates.
But providers need to be transparent about when they will scale back communications with families, and why.
“[It’s about] being transparent, keeping those lines open and making sure that they understand why we’re doing what we’re doing,” he said.