Senior Living Execs Reveal Pandemic Strategies

Speaking at the virtual Argentum Senior Living Executive Conference, top operators discussed how innovation has helped the industry weather the crisis.

Lucinda Baier, President & CEO, Brookdale Senior Living. Image courtesy of Brookdale Senior Living

The senior housing industry continues to grapple with the challenges of the COVID-19 crisis as it adjusts to new protocols and innovative ways of serving nearly a million residents nationwide.

Brookdale Senior Living, which operates more than 700 communities in 44 states, adapted quickly to the novel challenges of the virus. “We literally changed our business model overnight,” said President & CEO Lucinda Baier during a panel discussion at the Argentum Senior Living Executive Conference, a virtual event held by the nation’s largest senior living association.

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These changes included closing the communities to visitors, adding temperature and pulse oximeter checks, delivering meals to rooms and scrapping group activities in favor of individual pursuits. Relying on virtual visits, the company moved thousands of residents into its properties during the pandemic.

Brookdale’s procurement team also reviewed hundreds of new vendors and their products to obtain personal protective equipment (PPE) and other critical supplies. The company has recently began reopening its communities to visitors and kicking off small group activities and limited service in dining rooms.

Task forces and telehealth

Smaller operators such as Senior Star, which has 15 communities in six states, were forced to make similar adjustments. CEO Anja Rogers launched a COVID-19 task force at the outset of the pandemic in March and redeployed virtually the entire corporate office to serve associates working on the front lines, she said during the same panel.

Discovery Village at Dominion. Image courtesy of Discovery Senior Living

The company spent about $2.5 million on PPE, forming a procurement team focused on ensuring a 60- to 90-day supply at every community. Senior Star also established a triage team to keep tabs on employees and ensure that any absences due to illness, childcare or other issues would be covered. Rogers added that 3 percent of residents and 0.6 percent of associates have had a positive COVID-19 test.

Social distancing measures during the pandemic also spurred the embrace of telemedicine, which Rogers said was a hit with initially skeptical residents. “It just really lifted everyone’s spirits,” she said.

Ascension Living also found found significant benefits in telehealth technology. “We certainly feel that it’s removed barriers that we had in the past, from transportation to wait times, as well as physicians that would never have come to our sites,” noted Danny Stricker, president of the nonprofit parent organization of more than 35 communities. “Now our residents have more options.”

Experience focused

The design of senior living communities, on the other hand, may be relatively untouched by the crisis. Richard Hutchinson, CEO of Discovery Senior Living, noted that beyond infection control and sanitization, the company’s focus is on creating experiences for residents and delivering services efficiently.

“Being able to have perfect spaces has always been a key,” he said. “But I honestly believe we’re going to find out that this is more about the programming and the ability to be flexible in programming than the bricks and sticks.”

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