This article is sponsored by Delos. In this Voices interview, Senior Housing News sits down with Peter Scialla, president and COO of Delos, to learn everything there is to know about air filtration in senior living — including the one easy tip that Scialla says every operator can do immediately to help improve indoor air quality for residents. As Scialla lays out, because indoor air quality correlates to resident cognition, mental and respiratory health, sleep quality and many other health and well-being outcomes, it’s something all operators are thinking about, even beyond the increased focus due to COVID-19.
Senior Housing News: Peter, what career experiences do you most draw from in your role today as president and COO of Delos?
Peter Scialla: Prior to co-founding Delos back in 2012, I spent 18 years in the financial markets, the last ten of which were at Goldman Sachs as a partner of the firm running a trading operation. I think that span on Wall Street really sharpened my skillset as it relates to business and operations. There are so many things that go into starting a company and working toward sustainability, and then ultimately profitability.
I spent a lot of time reviewing companies, their earnings reports and the way they operate their businesses, their gross margins and other metrics, and all that provided a strong foundation of business principles upon founding Delos. We’re up to over 200 people now. I was managing large teams in my prior life professionally and that certainly translates. Hiring good talent, retaining good talent, motivating them, and making sure that we’re productive as an organization are all pillars to running a strong business.
As a company, we operate at the intersection of the health sciences and the building sciences. I’m not a doctor, I’m not an architect, but two of the things that my time in the financial markets did teach me was to surround yourself with experts, and don’t cut any corners as it relates to relying on fact and evidence. We’re science-based. I can’t say that in a prior career I did lab work or anything like that, but I learned to hire people who have, and who can lead us into the future.
Delos has been on the forefront of creating science-backed solutions for healthier indoor spaces. You’re tapped into the evolution of health and wellness in senior living. What are the biggest differences in the expectations that senior living operators had around health and wellness prior to the pandemic versus the expectations they have developed since the start of the pandemic?
Scialla: Prior to the pandemic, the trend toward healthier spaces was well intact. In fact, the senior living sector was above and beyond because that’s the business they’re in. We were impressed with the senior sector and decided to dive in a lot further.
Prior to the pandemic, wellness was getting infused into so many consumer products. But we noticed that it wasn’t yet infused materially into our largest consumption, real estate. These are the spaces we occupy every day, and by far the largest asset class in the world. We were driven by the fact that we spend 90% of our time indoors, and if we can improve those spaces and the effect that those indoor environments have on occupants, then we can drive meaningful change.
Then the pandemic hit, and it really was an ignition switch to amplify awareness around the effect that the indoor environment has on the human body. Naturally, pathogen transmission and COVID-19 accelerated people’s awareness of the importance of indoor air quality and helped illuminate a number of other possible interventions, such as how light affects the body and our sleeping patterns, how sound affects our stress levels, and so on.
Things that used to be luxuries are now expected. Consumers now demand a healthy, safe indoor environment. Operators know that. The pandemic has fast forwarded that movement by maybe a decade.
Delos has conducted its own research about indoor air quality. What are your most interesting findings and how does the research translate to the real-world environment?
Scialla: One of the things that really resonates, considering that we spend the majority of our time indoors, is that indoor air quality can be up to two to five times worse than outdoor air quality. That is because polluted outdoor air gets inside, and also because of the materials that occupy the space: contaminants and pollution for sure, natural things like viruses and pathogens in the air, or even something like carpeting, which can release chemicals within it into the air.
All of these things contribute to indoor air quality being much worse in many cases than outdoor air quality, which is why we decided to examine methodologies to not only improve but also validate that the air inside meets our thresholds and meets benchmarks for health and safety. It was quite astonishing when we thought about it. If you’ve got a house out in the Rocky Mountains, the air is so clean out there, so why do you need to improve indoor air quality?
The reason is that we’ve surrounded ourselves with these boxes, four walls and a roof. Everything that we pollute the indoor air with stays in there and can have measurable and meaningful impact on respiratory health, cognition, sleep quality and long-term disease prevention, all of which are relevant for senior living. There is a long list of benefits that consumers are now expecting. In fact, they’re demanding them. I think that’s been a real paradigm shift.
As you said, indoor air quality matters for everyone, but particularly for older adults. What is the impact of indoor air quality beyond the obvious area of pathogen transmission?
Scialla: At the end of the day, we’ve got a population in senior living that’s just more susceptible to the health risks associated with poor air quality. When you think about virus transmission, that is not the only factor, but even within that category, the immune systems of older adults are not as strong as younger adults. If the immune system is compromised, then naturally anything you’re going to do to reduce the risk of virus transmission is going to benefit that population even more than younger populations.
That’s just to cover the virus category. Beyond that, we have a number of things that we’ve studied ourselves and continue to study, as well as decades of academic research that we lean on, that points to links between air quality, mental health and sleep quality. Certainly the cognition point is a big one for seniors, especially when you think about dementia scores and the onset of Alzheimer’s and other diseases. Exposure to air pollution can also worsen already existing conditions in older adults, such as diabetes and asthma.
So this goes well beyond virus transmission. It goes well beyond COVID-19. What we’ve seen now, during and post-pandemic, is that the world is now aware of the importance of indoor air quality and that’s what’s driving demand.
Delos has launched the WISE initiative — Wellness Innovation in Senior Environments — which combines Delos’s expertise in healthy buildings with insights from leaders in the senior living industry. Why did you launch it and what outcomes have you seen so far?
Scialla: We felt that it was important to start a movement within an industry that serves a vulnerable population. We looked at where would be the best use of our time, our capital, our resources and our research agenda. We pointed to a number of different areas.
One was classrooms and making sure that we were doing everything we can to help the education industry improve air quality in classrooms as kids returned to school during the pandemic. Another area of major public concern were senior living communities. We’ve all heard about the COVID-19 outbreaks, and the epicenter of the early outbreaks were in senior facilities. That prompted us to include seniors in our scope, and map a whole research agenda out of our Well Living Lab, which was founded as a collaboration between Delos and Mayo Clinic.
Thankfully, we’ve got some great research partners in both Harrison Street and Sabra Health Care, two great founding partners of the WISE initiative. As we speak, this is an important effort that I think has a ton of momentum, particularly because the conclusions we’re drawing, for instance in indoor air quality, are quite actionable and relevant.
We have found that portable air purifiers, if they’re chosen right, can be so much more effective than expensive renovations to HVAC systems. Wall-mounted air purification units are closer to where people are convening. They’re closer to where people are getting infected. Our research also shows us that localization of air filtration at a number of different points in the room is much more effective and we’ve simulated these indoor environments to prove it. We’ve been driven by better science, better outcomes, and lower cost.
What are the most simple and effective steps that senior living operators can take today to immediately improve indoor air quality?
Scialla: There is one method that is the most simple, most cost-effective and most scientifically effective, and that’s wall-mounted air purification, or localized portable air purifiers, not in the ceiling nor in the HVAC. This filtration mechanism is positioned closer where people are convening as opposed to letting the air travel 18 feet to the upper right-hand corner of a room and go through the vent, get cleaned and then recirculated.
There’s a lot of contamination that can happen along the way, so if you can localize that filtration with portable air units, the effect is much greater on air filtration. You get a higher quality air filtration and a much less intrusive deployment. It’s much less expensive. These things can be drop-shipped. You don’t have to have labor come on site. I know having visitors in senior living facilities these days is tricky. This is something that is very simple to do, can be done in a matter of days, and is very inexpensive.
Finish this sentence: “The top strategy that senior housing providers should employ in 2022 to best prepare for 2023 is…”?
Scialla: Without a doubt, localized, portable air purifiers. Clearly, the highest bang for the buck. To qualify that, it is important to select the right device and put the onus on manufacturers to produce third-party validation on any claims that are made.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Delos delivers health and wellness solutions to senior living residents by focusing on indoor air quality. To learn more about how Delos can help your residents, visit delos.com/work-with-us/senior-living.
The Voices Series is a sponsored content program featuring leading executives discussing trends, topics and more shaping their industry in a question-and-answer format. For more information on Voices, please contact [email protected].