John O'Connor
John O’Connor

For senior living operators, there’s no doubt these are difficult times.

COVID-19 severely damaged both the sector’s reputation and its financial performance. And even before the pandemic, various other challenges were keeping many an operator up at night.

As this is being written, several states now are considering tougher compliance rules for operators, while the federal government just proposed staffing mandates in skilled care facilities. And never has it been more difficult to find and keep competent employees.

Still, it’s not all bad.

One piece of particularly uplifting news comes from Brentwood, TN. Brentwood just happens to be home to Brookdale Senior Living, the nation’s largest senior living company. The company boasts nearly 700 communities and more than 55,000 units across 41 states.  

The firm just reported 23 consecutive months of year-over-year weighted average occupancy growth. Even with the “weighted average” caveat, this is a notable achievement.

Look, it’s no secret Brookdale faced significant challenges before the turnaround. One factor was the previous management’s decision to purchase a lot of fixer-uppers that required more fixing than was expected. Another was an ill-fated and hugely expensive marketing plan to establish Brookdale as a national brand. That day may yet come. But it won’t be anytime soon.

Yes, hindsight may be 20/20. Still, those were substantial missteps. That the firm has been able to turn things around is truly commendable.

Better yet, the occupancy uptick at Brookdale may be indicative of a larger trend.

At the recent American Health Care Association / National Center for Assisted Living convention, President and CEO Mark Parkinson predicted that occupancy rates for skilled nursing members may return to pre-COVID numbers by this time next year.

Should that recovery echo across senior living — and there are some compelling reasons to believe it might — a lot of frowns will soon get turned upside down.

There are some other emerging reasons for optimism as well. Attendance and operator participation at the AHCA / NCAL show were noticeably higher this year. That could bode well for two other upcoming shows: the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care and LeadingAge. Only time will tell.

Football coaches faced with fourth down plays in enemy territory early in the game often kick field goals — rather than risk an unsuccessful play. Better to take a small victory and keep building positive momentum, the thinking goes.

Similarly, this is a good time to celebrate even the smallest senior living victories. String enough of them together, and the outcome for all involved just might be considerably better.

John O’Connor is editorial director for McKnight’s Senior Living and its sister media brands, McKnight’s Long-Term Care News, which focuses on skilled nursing, and McKnight’s Home Care. Read more of his columns here.

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