In the mid-1990s, Greg Vital had a realization.
A career skilled nursing specialist, Vital and his partner Franklin Farrow had launched Morning Pointe Senior Living in 1996, with a goal of being strictly a developer and an initial target of six communities, he told Senior Housing News.
But the realization that seniors were living longer and needed options for care and services led them to assemble a management team and operate the communities on their own.
“As with most developers-slash-management companies, you just don’t stop at six,” he said.
Based in Ooltewah, Tennessee, Morning Pointe is now a regional specialist in assisted living and memory care, with a portfolio of 35 communities in five states serving over 1,500 residents. It has done so by sticking to a development strategy of building modest, single-story communities and focusing on clinical care and life enrichment.
That model has served Morning Pointe well, including in 2020, when the company not only faced Covid-19 but another crisis. A natural disaster significantly damaged two of its communities as the first wave of positive Covid-19 cases swept across the U.S., forcing the provider to find new housing for 130 residents while keeping them safe from the coronavirus.
Steady development and care
Vital credits Morning Pointe’s success to the consistency of its development team, which has remained largely unchanged since the company’s founding. While that team adapted to changes in services and care, and expectations of residents and their families, the foundation of MorningPointe’s success remains its buildings.
“[What] we were building 25 years ago are our basic skeletons to what we now build,” Vital said.
A typical Morning Pointe community is a one-story building and an average of 70 units — either all assisted living, memory care, or a mix. Buildings incorporate large dining and activities rooms, as well as common amenities that encourage social interaction and life enrichment.
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The company focuses on the mid-South, developing multiple communities in markets within a five- to six-hour drive from its central office in Ooltewah, throughout Tennessee and Kentucky. This allows the provider to leverage economies of scale while also creating brand awareness among a transient segment of the population in these markets, Vital told SHN.
“You might have grown up in Eastern Kentucky, but have gravitated towards middle Tennessee and Nashville [and work] in a more metropolitan area,” he said. “[Our] being in these markets [means people] are familiar with our level of care, and our commitment to quality and culture.”
The moderate size of Morning Pointe’s communities allows the provider to emphasize clinical care and life enrichment, which Vital believes differentiates it from competitors in its markets.
Morning Pointe’s life enrichment programming ranges from music and art therapy, to a farm-to-table dining program launched across the portfolio connecting residents to local farms, and includes field trips to the farms that provide communities with produce.
Additionally, wellness and exercise programs play an extended role in Morning Pointe’s programming, as residents have gotten older and stayed in communities longer. Maintaining agility and activity allows residents to enjoy more rewarding life outcomes.
Like the industry at large, Morning Pointe struggled with operational and expense pressures stemming from Covid-19.
But its response was compounded on Easter Sunday 2020, when massive tornadoes touched down across the southeastern U.S. Two of Morning Pointe’s communities in Chattanooga — Morning Pointe of Chattanooga, an assisted living facility; and The Lantern at Morning Pointe Alzheimer’s Center of Excellence — were damaged when a tornado tore through the area.
This led to the evacuation of 130 residents to area hotels set up as triage units, where they would remain for almost three weeks before being relocated to other communities, Morning Pointe or otherwise, where they could continue to receive care. All of this was done under Covid-19 safety protocols, Vital told SHN.
‘We were put on a higher level of priority, understanding that we needed to protect our residents,” he said.
Morning Pointe of Chattanooga reopened in November 2020; The Lantern is still under reconstruction.
To date, Morning Pointe’s communities have not had to contend with extensive Covid-19 outbreaks, which Vital attributes to fast action during the pandemic’s first wave and erring on the side of caution with regard to keeping residents safe. Communities, however, have contended with staff infection rates outpacing resident infections, as a result of some employees contracting the coronavirus away from a work setting.
Lockdowns and security protocols, meanwhile, have had an adverse impact on occupancy and admissions, and Vital estimates the dropoff in occupancy percentage to be in the double digits, with significant losses during the most recent wave of infections during the third and fourth quarters of 2020.
As of mid-February, Morning Pointe hadyet to see a stabilization in its occupancy rate across the portfolio. Vital attributes this to concerns from families over whether their loved ones will be safe in an assisted living setting.
“We were taking precautions, but none of us knew the extent of this [virus],” he said. “It will take us time to reassure people and families that senior care.”
Vital hopes that the arrival of multiple vaccines will contribute to a rebound in confidence. As of mid-February, 75% of Morning Pointe’s portfolio had completed their first vaccine clinics, and half of the communities had completed their second clinics.
But the rate of staff vaccinations is lagging behind resident vaccinations, which has led Vital and Morning Pointe leadership to launch an education program highlighting the benefits of vaccination.
“We’ve encouraged employees on why they need to get the vaccination,” he said. “Is it for them? Yes. But it’s for their families, it’s for the residents. It’s for the community, so we can kind of get back to normal.”
Vital hesitates to predict when a post-pandemic normal will arrive. In fact, he believes the industry may not be able to evaluate a new landscape until the industry is well into a recovery. The sheer numbers of positive cases in the U.S. over the past five months have reintroduced a fear factor to residents, prospects and their families that appeared to be on the wane during the summer.
For now, Vital and Morning Pointe are focusing on the moment, before moving on to the next one. But the company is making progress, including through the recent hire of Doru Mihaescu as vice president of information technology. A registered nurse, Mihaescu also developed one of the first pieces of medical software to address the safety and security of patients’ health information.
Morning Pointe also hired Gerald Jackson as regional vice president of operations for its Kentucky and Indiana footprint.
“We know we need to do even more,” Vital said. “We just want to make sure that they’re safe.”