Frustrated by a lack of information on the pandemic at her Five Star Senior Living (Nasdaq: FVE) community last year, resident Diana Wiener took matters into her own hands.
She started a newsletter, and nine issues later, “The Buzz” is circulating among the residents of Five Star Premier Residences of Yonkers in Yonkers, New York. It serves as both a creative outlet for residents and a resource to track which residents have had Covid-19, who’s in the hospital and who has died from the disease. The newsletter, printed onto glossy paper, is also a lifeline for residents who don’t use email but have to spend most of their time in their rooms.
The Buzz recently caught the eye of The New York Times, which publicized Wiener’s efforts to inform her neighbors and friends. A little more than a week later and her story had gone international, landing on the pages of British newspaper The Telegraph.
In both stories, the news coverage was not flattering for Newton, Massachusetts-based Five Star, with stories describing a lack of transparency between residents and management at the Yonkers community.
A representative for Premier Residences of Yonkers said the company must follow HIPAA privacy laws that govern what it can and can’t disclose, and that the community understands how hard the pandemic has been for residents and their families.
“We continue to review and improve our efforts to mitigate the spread of the virus, communicate with our residents and their families, and effectively address the impact of the pandemic — and we have made great progress,” reads a statement shared with Senior Housing News.
Since her story hit the New York Times and The Telegraph, Wiener says she’s fielded at least 100 calls from people in the U.S. and abroad who saw the article. She adds this all could have been avoided had her community’s executive director answered her questions and more closely listened to her concerns.
“[I said] I’m starting a newsletter, because you are not giving us information, and you’ve given us declarative sentences but no explanation … and his response was, don’t do it, you’re going to rile everybody up and they can’t understand it anyway,” Wiener told SHN. “When he said that to me, that was it.”
The newsletter and the headlines it prompted serve as a cautionary tale for senior living providers seeking to maintain resident satisfaction and avoid bad press as they work to rebuild occupancy in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. It also underscores the importance of the need to listen to residents while developing communication strategies.
What’s The Buzz?
Wiener started The Buzz last May after months of back-and-forth emails with the community’s executive director.
Wiener had reached out starting in March, 2020, asking for more information about the community’s Covid-19 response. She was particularly concerned that residents didn’t have enough information during the early days of the pandemic, including who was sick, who had gone to the hospital and who had died — information that is important to know if you want to avoid spreading an infection.
“Before this thing happened, there was always an announcement in the common areas of who passed away,” Wiener said. “These people are our family. We live together, we eat together, we do everything together.”
So Wiener began cultivating sources throughout the community, including some employees, to get more information. In the first issue of The Buzz released last May, Wiener shared the news that 13 people in her community had died of Covid-19, while 17 others had recovered. She’s kept up the practice in subsequent issues.
“I was able to put out the names of who was in the hospital, who died, who moved in, who moved out,” Wiener said. “This is our community. News doesn’t get more local than this.”
In addition to information on Covid-19 and Five Star’s response to it, a typical issue of The Buzz includes news, poetry, surveys, essays and photos, all from residents of the community. Wiener lays out the newsletter on her personal computer in about 10 days, and printing it every month costs about $400. Residents who read the newsletter sometimes chip in.
“People might give me $5 — somebody gave me $500,” Wiener said. “They want the information, and it’s got their pictures in it. It’s a hometown newspaper, basically.”
With the help of some friends, Wiener delivers each issue by slipping it under residents’ doors. She also goes to great lengths to make The Buzz accessible, such as by producing an audio version each month for residents who are visually impaired.
Though The Buzz was created to share information about Covid-19, the focus of the newsletter has evolved to include other resident issues, such as the fact that the residents of Five Star Premier Residences of Yonkers are facing a 5% rate increase in 2021.
“There are many people in this building who are living here that are subsidized by their children whose lives are affected greatly by the economics that are happening right now,” Wiener said.
A spokesperson for Five Star’s community in Yonkers said the operator prioritizes the safety and well-being of its residents and team members, and touted the fact that more than 300 people living and working in the community had received Covid-19 vaccine doses as of Jan. 23.
“Over time, the availability of community-wide testing allowed us to better track any presence of the virus and further reduce the risk of exposure, while also providing us with a greater ability to keep our community members informed,” the statement shared with SHN reads. “We continue to work closely with local health officials, abiding by all recommendations of and directives by the CDC, as well as federal, state and local regulatory agencies.”
The circumstances that led to The Buzz’s creation and publicity are unique. But there are lessons that other providers can take away from this situation, according to Katie Adkisson, partner at Nashville, Tennessee-based Reed Public Relations.
“While operators have to stay compliant with HIPAA, there are ways to ensure residents are more informed. It is their home, after all,” Adkisson told SHN. “I’d say the lesson here is that transparency is crucial, and the more communication there can be, the better.”
Wiener has some words of advice for the senior living industry, too: treat residents like more than a revenue stream, and listen to them when they have concerns.
“If your industry wants to evolve and speak to different segments of the population, they better start speaking to them and understand that they’re going to get a response,” Wiener said. “Otherwise, we’re moving out. I’m not going to spend $7,000 a month for this.”
Providers should also consider collaborating with residents and helping them start their own resident-run newsletters like The Buzz, she added.
“I’d like to see this template used all over the country,” Wiener said. “I think it would benefit retirees tremendously.”