With many legislators and members of the lay media focusing their attention on long-term care due to the coronavirus pandemic, now may be an opportune time to educate these audiences about the industry and its needs, said panelists last week at a LeadingAge Annual Meeting Virtual Experience keynote session.

“It’s been remarkable to me how much under the radar we have flown for hundreds of years, where people really just don’t understand what we do,” LeadingAge President and CEO Katie Smith Sloan said.

The time is ripe to change that reality, LeadingAge Ohio CEO Kathryn Brod said.

“We have the opportunity now, as a result of COVID, to piggyback on what our legislators have been hearing. And when we talk with our Ohio legislators, they have heard over and over from family members about the importance of visitation, about the importance of having opportunities for their constituents to see their loved ones,” she said. “We’ve never had that kind of opportunity with them before to talk about the work that we do. And so, actually, I think it’s opened their eyes to the fact that our communities are serving an incredibly valuable need.”

Previously used methods of education still are important, too, said Stephen Fleming, CEO of the Well Spring Group in Greensboro, NC, and former LeadingAge board chair.

“We can’t forget what it means to call our local representatives and have them into our facilities, and especially in a post-COVID world …to have them here, to talk about what we went through, what we’re going through,” he said. “It may be trite to say, but people ignored us, by and large, until now. And we’ve been demonized …but we can turn the tide the other way.”

Providers can contact their representatives one person at a time, he said, “and then collectively, we’re able to make a broader statement.”

Brod said she also believes that a good opportunity exists now for the industry to build a workforce strategy to address one of the biggest challenges for long-term care providers.

“We need to hire with the expectation that we are going to grow each and every employee,” she said. “I know that we worked incredibly hard to bring that CNA into our organization — or here in Ohio, we call them the STNA — and we need them in that spot, but we need to have a plan in place to credential them and grow them in their career.”

Brod suggested that organizations form partnerships with career centers and community colleges to address the needs of workers across all departments of an organization.

“That’s really hard work given everything else that’s on the plate right now of our organizations,” she said, adding, however, that policymakers’ interests will be captured “when we can reframe the story of our workforce from one that’s underpaid and undervalued [to] a workforce in which we’re investing.”

Immigration reform should be a priority for the Biden-Harris administration to help with workforce issues, Fleming said. “We’ve got to have a commonsense immigration reform policy to get people back coming into this country to assist us with our needs with older adults,” he said.

Another way to try to ensure that policymakers in general are interested in and understand the aging services field is by recruiting aging services professionals who are willing to run for public office, Fleming said.

But now also is a good time for providers to turn their collective gaze inward to try to devise better models of care and services, Fleming said. Current aging services models aren’t working, he said, adding that they involve “warehousing older adults and/or isolating them out in the community with no services.”

“It took a pandemic, maybe, to throw the pie in our face,” Fleming said, “but the reality is, we are sitting here in the latter part of 2020, still in the throes of the pandemic but after going eight months with it, with hard evidence that says another model is going to be better” from both a resident and a public policy standpoint.

“What we’ve been doing has not been to the benefit of the older adult,” he said. “We have the evidence.”