Five senior living industry leaders recently took the time to share with me — for you — their insights into the biggest challenges that faced owners and operators in 2020 and the challenges they will face in 2021. You can read more here, but from their remarks, I’ve gleaned four lessons for the senior living industry for this year.

1. Communication with policymakers, media critical.

Communication took on added importance in 2020 as providers competed for attention and resources to fight COVID-19.

“The pandemic’s impact on older adults has both brought new attention to and understanding of aging services and senior living while also highlighting that the needs of older adults and those who care for them are not prioritized,” LeadingAge President and CEO Katie Smith Sloan said. “So as an industry, we’ve had to advocate heavily to get the much-needed resources, whether [personal protective equipment], tests and supplies, or funding, to keep older adults and staff safe.”

In 2021, she added, “We’ve got to continue to raise our voices to remain on policymakers’ radar.”

Advocacy at the state and federal levels always has been important in aging services, Sloan said, “but the pandemic has certainly underscored the importance of engaging with policymakers.”

The importance of educating members of the lay media was evident in 2020, too.

“This pandemic brought to light how misunderstood the senior living industry truly is,” Argentum President and CEO James Balda said. “We spent countless hours educating reporters and policymakers on the differences that exist among long-term care settings, which has proven to be critical in acquiring the resources necessary to continue to battle this virus.”

The relationships forged or strengthened in 2020 will serve the industry well as it continues to advocate for resources to battle the pandemic, prioritization for vaccines and other issues as well as fight against possible increased federal regulation now that the spotlight on the industry has intensified.

2. A healthy company culture can help alleviate staffing issues.

Recruiting and retaining competent workers is a perennial challenge for senior living operators. During the pandemic, companies have used hero pay and agency assistance to address shortfalls, National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care President and CEO Brian Jurutka pointed out.

“That said, this is a time when culture within the community staff becomes a differentiator,” he said. “The pandemic, in addition to shining a spotlight on the sector, has also helped illuminate the space where culture plays — that space between words and actions. Those with a strong culture have an additional tool at their disposal to help minimize the continued staffing challenges faced by the sector.

3. The industry is stronger working together.

“Every other issue has been trivial compared to what our providers went through this year,” National Center for Assisted Living Executive Director Scott Tittle said. “This was by far the most difficult and distressing event our sector has ever faced.”

As part of responding to the challenges associated with COVID-19, operators began working together to source PPE and solve other problems. Often, the connections were facilitated through the trade groups representing providers. The experiences of 2020, Tittle said, “really highlighted the importance of our association and other professional groups as well.”

“For many assisted living providers, they haven’t seen a need to belong to a national organization, given that it’s a state-regulated industry. But our ability to work with the administration and Congress to relay what’s happening on the frontlines and advocate for resources has been instrumental,” he said. “Assisted living really felt forgotten in the early months of the pandemic, but we made it our job to not let that happen, and now assisted living providers have access to federal dollars, testing and vaccine priority. And as we prepare for a new administration and Congress, we’ll continue to play a pivotal role in helping policymakers understand our profession, what happened and how we move forward.”

4. The senior living industry is resilient.

The senior living profession — from frontline workers to those making decisions in the administrator’s office and the boardroom to those assisting and advocating for them in associations — have shown incredible resilience over the course of the pandemic.

This quality will serve the industry well as the pandemic continues and as it ultimately subsides and the industry works to adapt and regain consumer confidence.

“COVID impacted every aspect of the business in unprecedented ways,” American Seniors Housing Association President David Schless said, adding that he does not believe that the industry will be permanently impaired by COVID-19.

“There is work to be done to regain consumer confidence, and I am confident that will happen,” he said. “The industry will come out of the tragic pandemic stronger and will be better equipped to play a role in the broader healthcare system. I think the industry will also be better equipped to communicate with families and better equipped to engage older adults in the future.”

The key, he said, will be for communities to be “well-conceived and well-operated.” That, of course, is true at all times.

“There will be many changes and lessons learned throughout the entire healthcare system, not just long-term care,” NCAL’s Tittle said. “We hope this crisis will shine a light on the need to prioritize our nation’s seniors to ensure they have access to high-quality care and meaningful connections with their loved ones and surrounding communities.”

NIC’s Jurutka said, “Taken in its entirety, the future of seniors housing is bright and will continue to serve older Americans as it provides care, housing, socialization, and a better quality of life for millions.”

Read more insights from these association leaders here.