ATLANTA — Seniors housing operators have been grappling the past 18 months with how to maintain their properties and keep occupancy high while also protecting their staff and residents, who are the most vulnerable population for infections and death from the COVID-19 outbreak. With the rise of the Delta variant in recent weeks, owners and operators are having to make tough decisions to care for their residents, although now they have built some muscle memory on how to operate effectively amid the pandemic.
“We are better at dealing with COVID-19 now than before,” said Joe Jasmon, CEO and managing partner of American Healthcare Management. Jasmon added that alleviating the fear of COVID-19 and the Delta variant is a big part of an operator’s job, and bringing residents into their social programs is a major point of emphasis, even if it can only be done virtually.
“There’s been a huge insurgence of Zoom calls,” said Jasmon. “Before it was once in a blue moon, and it would be a son or daughter who lived in Belize or somewhere. Now the entire family and friends are calling in. We have to cultivate that activity and encourage it.”
Jasmon’s comments came during the “Filling Up Properties” panel at the eighth annual InterFace Seniors Housing Southeast conference, which took place at Atlanta’s Westin Buckhead on Wednesday, Aug. 18 and drew 250 registrants. Jason Rock, chief strategy officer at Sherpa, moderated the discussion.
Investing in technology
American Healthcare Management is expanding its tech solutions platform outside of just video conferencing to better care for its residents while also giving reassurance to families and friends. The firm is partnering with data solutions provider Sentrics, which gives operators and families a detailed and virtual look at how residents spend their day.
“We can do all the fun things like schedule appointments, activities and meals, and it also allows us to know where our residents and staff members are,” said Jasmon. “It helps us prove to families that yes mom did shower even though she said she didn’t because she couldn’t remember. We constantly get notes that families are worried their loved ones sit around all day, but we can show them their entire day. It’s more proof than just our word. It ends up being a great sales tool as well.”
Before residents even get to the facility, operators have had to get creative on how to sell their property to the prospect’s family as physical property tours are limited or restricted altogether due to COVID-19 concerns. Daniel Almendares, senior vice president of operations at SRI Management, said that his firm has come up with a sophisticated solution that gives potential residents and their families an inside look at their facilities.
“We are doing virtual tours, like we all have, but we’ve taken that a step further by getting virtual reality goggles,” said Almendares. “We’ll give them the opportunity to go through the communities as if they were being guided by a wheelchair. We’ve been able to do that for all our locations. It’s helpful to give people a feel of our community, and it’s a tool in the same way that a pool or theater is. It gives the adult child the comfort of seeing the properties for themselves.”
What can’t be replicated are the chef-cooked meals that were staples for physical tours up until the COVID-19 outbreak. Now that those are heavily regulated against, operators are innovating in order for families to experience how good their mom or dad will eat.
“We’ve been fortunate enough to do a new event in Chicago where we can showcase the chefs and food with a food fair,” said Jasmon. “From a food perspective, have some pre-prepared stuff to send with people home. There’s nothing you shouldn’t try.”
One of the main health scares that seniors housing operators are fighting against is prolonged loneliness, which has become an even more acute problem amid the pandemic as facilities are wary of exposing residents to COVID-19. According to a 2015 study published in Perspectives on Psychological Science, isolation has the same health effects as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
“I feel that isolation was more devastating to my residents than COVID-19,” said Jasmon. “We saw so many declines in residents, but once things opened back up and families were allowed to visit, the residents were reborn. We have to do a better job of facilitating socialization any way we can.”
“Things that got our seniors out of their homes like shops or bingo halls weren’t available to them,” added Almendares. “That is something our communities can offer. We use it as a tool. Unfortunately, as the Delta variant surges, we don’t know what’s going to happen and if shutdowns will occur.”
Death is nothing new to the seniors housing industry, but an unfortunate reality is operators are now dealing with COVID-19-related deaths. A study funded by National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care (NIC) and conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago found that about half of the 3,817 properties surveyed across five states had at least one COVID-19-related death in 2020.
Chris Sides, president and CEO of Senior Solutions Management Group, said that pushing the discovery process with the families ahead of time has been important so that they can give the infected resident care in line with the family’s wishes.
“It came down sometimes to letting the resident die in their room alone or bring them out and have them be happy and have some socialization with the risk of exposure,” said Sides. “We’ll probably argue what’s the right decision for years to come. It’s still a case-by-case, community-by-community strategy.”
In the face of unemployment benefits causing many to opt out of the workforce, seniors housing operators have had to incentivize their staffers with better pay and benefits to retain their workers.
“When the staffing crisis really started was when the stimulus checks were first issued,” said Sides. “Adjusting payments upward for our good workers who have been with us a couple years is where they need to be. When we did that, the staffing issues resolved themselves.”
Seniors housing operators are also competing against in-home care staffing agencies, which until recently offered higher salaries. Jasmon said his firm offers employees competitive pay and performance bonuses. He said it comes down to being adaptable and keeping morale high.
“We are flexible with shift hours — you throw out a shift and we’ll probably be able to make it happen,” said Jasmon. “It really is about getting good people who will be here and who will care for your residents.”
John Rauls, president and CEO of Rauls Living, said that true success for his firm comes down ultimately to having a family-like atmosphere, which boils down to treating the employees with respect and concern. Rauls said his firm believes in interacting with each employee — which he dubbed “lifestyle counselors” — individually.
“It may be that you have a lifestyle counselor you have to work with as far as doctors’ appointments or working from home,” said Rauls. “We have to understand our employees and residents and truly try to help them. Now being called a lifestyle counselor is more important than ever because we really are counseling people through these times. We haven’t seen anything on this scale since 1918.”
— John Nelson