Seniors housing operators have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic through a variety of changed procedures, such as increased infection protocols, limited visitations and meal deliveries. Now, the next step is to make sure those procedures are sustainable for the long term, as the virus shows no signs of going away in the near future.
“I think back to when we were first realizing COVID-19 was really going to affect us. If we all locked down for a few weeks, the curve would flatten and we could all go back to our lives,” said Kelly Keefe, vice president of community solutions strategy for seniors housing software platform MatrixCare. “We fast forward a few months to today, and the virus is not looking like it will let up any time soon.”
Keefe noted that a recent survey of operators show that most have less than a two-week supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) for staff.
The comments came on a Seniors Housing Business webinar panel that Keefe moderated on Thursday, July 23. Panelists included Steve Lampa, founding partner of Kensington Senior Living; Kirby Cunningham, a registered nurse and senior product manager for MatrixCare; and Frank Nash, senior product manager for MatrixCare.
While businesses have reopened following the lockdowns and stay-at-home orders, seniors housing is in a precarious position. How do operators keep their residents social and happy while also keeping them safe from the pandemic?
“It’s really difficult to maintain crisis mode,” said Keefe.
For Kensington — which operates seven assisted living and memory care communities in California, New York, Virginia and Maryland — a worrisome trend was noticed. The residents were isolated for safety, often by local government order, with no visitation and all meals delivered to the rooms. But as a result, negative outcomes like falls and depression noticeably increased.
“People weren’t getting exercise, they weren’t socializing and were sitting in their favorite chair too long,” said Lampa. “These were as dangerous to the long-term health of our residents as COVID-19.”
To fix the problem, Kensington coordinated closely with local health departments. Trying to find a balance between protection from the virus and the downsides of isolation, many rules were carefully relaxed. Courtyard family visits — with strict rules — were allowed, and the company even got a scissor lift to let families visit on second-floor balconies without going inside.
“The health departments were as concerned about the increase in falls as we were,” said Lampa. “They understand what we’re doing and what we’re up against.”
One thing that allowed the company to loosen restrictions was stocking up on PPE for staff, and making sure the new rules about infection control were hard set in the minds of employees. “We became much more process-oriented,” said Lampa. “It’s more engrained. In the long haul it’s better organization.”
Lampa said the company is predicting it will be March 2021 before the pandemic shows any signs of easing.
Technology to the rescue
As a result of the crisis, occupancy is at an all-time low across all types of seniors housing, according to the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care (NIC). It’s harder to give tours with no one allowed in a community, and seniors are reticent to move during a pandemic that has a harder impact on their age group.
“Virtual marketing has become very, very big in this industry,” said Cunningham. “Many clients have put together video that they play during virtual tours — of the campus, with residents, and showing the caregivers using PPE correctly. It helps build trust and bring people in from across the nation that couldn’t travel into the communities themselves for a closer look. It reduces expenses on the family.”
Cunningham added that simple things like a follow-up phone call are more important than ever for converting prospects into residents. “It’s important that we use not just new tech, but old tech that works,” he said.
Nash noted that there is a lot of technology that can predict heightened fall risks, or sense a fall and alert staff. While seniors are stereotypically tech averse, that’s changing quickly.
“If you look at the stats for technology usage, the fastest growing percentage of people with smartphones is 75+, and you’re seeing these folks on social media,” said Nash. “There’s an adoption group because technology is getting more simple.”
To watch the entire webinar, click here.
— Jeff Shaw