Senior Living Foresight conducted a constructive virtual summit recently which provided excellent insight on a variety of topics. Active Living International had some valuable takeaways for those in the senior living space. If you are interested in the full line up of webinars go to Senior Living Foresight Virtual Summit.

What does COVID-19 mean for the Future of Senior Living?

Speaker: Robert Kramer

Blog post: September 3, 2020

No matter how drastically COVID-19 has impacted the health of residents and staff, one fact rings true to all: there will come a time when we put this pandemic behind us, but there will not come a time that we return to the normal we knew.

Right now, it can feel like our industry is a war zone. Our community-level employees are on the front lines, defending one of the most vulnerable sectors (our seniors) from the enemy (the virus). Although the current situation is scary and full of unknowns—there is one more cause for concern: What happens after this? Robert Kramer, President and Founder of Nexus Insights, believes we need to begin building for the future of a post-COVID world now. At the Senior Living Foresight Virtual Summit, Kramer dove into what he predicts will change for senior living moving forward, as well as some “unknowns” we need to be on the lookout for.

For better or for worse, we are now part of the healthcare continuum. This will be a double-edged sword. While we will be recognized for the care we provide to one of the highest risk demographic groups, there will also be intensified focus and criticism on how well our communities are operating. As a result of the pandemic shining light on increased risk and liability in the industry, as well as the need for additional supplies and services, affordability will be a significant challenge. Kramer postulates this is also a huge opportunity because wealth span will become just as important as health span. COVID-19 has revealed to many that our nation needs to take a second look at its underfunding of the housing and long-term care of its poorest and most frail elders.

Although our model for seniors housing will not change overnight, it will need to look and be marketed very differently in the future. Primarily, as a place to live and not a place to die. Kramer believes there is a large stigma surrounding the senior population as “takers” of society instead of “givers” because they are no longer searching for, contributing to, or engaging in a sense of purpose in life. As operators, how can we change that? Focusing on health span means engagement, not entertainment. While entertainment is somewhat necessary, our life enrichment/activities directors should also have a focus as Purpose Matchmakers, working to help residents feel a sense of contribution and belonging. By doing this, engagement, and human spirit, living and not dying, is promoted.

One added benefit to this marketing shift: As we help guide our current residents in continuing or rekindling something purposeful and nurturing, we will be developing a lifestyle product that appeals to the younger side of the Baby Boomer generation, attracting them sooner rather than later by focusing on wellness and prevention, human connection, and reigniting a sense of ambition and belonging. The way we market our communities on tours will change. Be prepared to answer questions such as: “How to you plan to prevent infection spreading across the community in the event of another virus outbreak?”

Telehealth and telemedicine: our industry could not have anticipated just how quickly these have become commonplace. The COVID-19 crisis has shown a massive need for it. In the future, senior living will not get away with sending residents out to the hospital or to their doctor as often, because families now know that they have an option. Their loved one is better off in their own apartment without the stressors that come with hospitalization. Insurance companies have realized there are alternatives to long-term hospital stays and will most likely incentivize customers to take advantage of remote services. A huge advantage to this adoption is that telehealth/telemedicine will make it easier to downplay the value proposition based on care, and increase our value proposition based on social engagement, human connection, and sense of purpose, benefitting the marketing shift that Kramer predicts.

This crisis has shown us the importance of transparency, not just during drastic situations, but every day. Immediate, caring, continuous, and credible communication is key. If we are not transparent when communicating, trust is lost, and without trust, there is no credibility. A solution to keeping up with this is accepting that we will need to fully embrace and accept digital communication with residents, their families, and healthcare partners.

With so many jobs lost in America, our frontline staff is essential. Their value to our industry and the need for us to provide them with strong support has been proven—there will be no going back. Right now, we need to be championing the heroes on our teams. We need to recognize how dependent we, and our residents, are on staff. An important key in doing this well is with a strong community culture. Communities that already had a strong, unified culture are the ones excelling in this crisis. The unemployment crisis presents an opportunity to recruit new employees.

Although the labor pool is much larger now, costs in terms of wages and necessary supplies like PPE, COVID testing, and additional training are higher. Our value proposition will be proven through culture and care for staff. In order to attract compassionate, team-oriented employees, we need to get the message out that we are not just a place to provide care, we are somewhere that they can make a difference in residents’ lives every day.

Two questions surrounding the post COVID world that Kramer feels we should keep in mind are: “How long will the impact of the pandemic linger in terms of fear surrounding a senior living setting, especially among Boomers?” This depends on the Boomers. Fear could subside quickly, or it could take months or an entire generation to be forgotten. Kramer doubts it would take an entire generation but warns that it’s still a danger.

Second, “How long and how deep will the economic impact of COVID-19 affect the affordability of seniors housing?” According to Kramer, it’s way too early to know for sure. However, he highly recommends that we, as an industry, begin focusing on stepping up affordability in order to foster an environment for a well-planned recovery.

“It is time that we start planning for the future,” said Kramer. We need to think of ways to perpetuate in our communities that seniors are givers to society, not takers. We need to overcome the image that seniors have minimal societal value, and bring more attention to celebrating our residents’ wisdom, their contributions and value. It is critical that during this time we demonstrate transparency. While we may be seen as somewhat of a casualty of the pandemic it is important to avoid being seen as an enabler of the virus based on lack of transparency. We are on the front lines, defending those who are vulnerable.

Lastly, Kramer encourages us to not let post-COVID-19 planning take a backseat to current crisis management. “The historic challenge for leaders is to manage the crisis while building the future” (Henry Kissinger, Wall Street Journal, 3 April 2020).