John O'Connor illustration
McKnight’s Editorial Director John O’Connor

Senior living operators faced unprecedented challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic. Residents were dying. Workers were leaving. Occupancy levels were going through the floor boards.

By any measure, it was not a pleasant time. An existential crisis was more like it.

In an effort to provide temporary relief, our government officials implemented several crucial measures. 

Regulatory easements were introduced, allowing communities more flexibility in managing their operations. For example, telehealth services were expanded, enabling remote consultations and reducing the need for in-person visits, thus minimizing the risk of virus transmission.

New temporary funding sources also emerged. Governments and private organizations allocated substantial funds to support senior living operators. Those financial aids were used for things such as procuring personal protective equipment, improving sanitation measures and enhancing infection control protocols. Additionally, emergency grants and loans helped cover the increased operational costs and mitigate revenue losses due to restricted admissions.

Recognizing the critical role of staff, significant efforts also were made to support those frontline workers. Hazard pay and bonuses were introduced, acknowledging their dedication and the heightened risks they faced. Training programs also were established to ensure that staff members were well-equipped to handle the unique challenges posed by the pandemic.

In addition, mental health support initiatives were launched, offering counseling and stress management resources to both residents and staff. In many places, community partnerships flourished, with local businesses and volunteers providing meals, entertainment and companionship to isolated residents.

Those combined efforts provided much-needed relief to operators, helping them navigate the crisis and continue caring for the vulnerable residents they serve.

But as the old song reminds us, what goes up must come down. Many of those important and needed measures either have been curtailed, or soon may be. 

The cumulative effect of this winding down? As one operator recently told me, it’s like the circus left town.

For without the additional support to lean on, many communities are finding it more difficult to make payroll and keep the lights on.

And therein lies one of the inherent risks of temporary assistance. All too often, many underling problems can linger long after the short-term support is gone. 

That’s a reality that all too many assisted living and other long-term care operators recently have been learning the hard way. 

Small wonder we are seeing a push to make the short-term help longer term in nature, perhaps permanent. 

Will these efforts succeed? Who knows. My guess is that some will, whereas others won’t. Either way, there will be adjustment pains in our field for a while.

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.