John O'Connor
John O’Connor

For many senior living operators, the past six months or so have been a complete dumpster fire.

Residents and staff are dying by the day. Costs are up dramatically, while revenues are down. And as for occupancy reductions? It’s not pretty.

By any objective measure, this is the hardest year the field has faced since, well, its inception. In fact, given how widespread the carnage has been and continues to be, some are beginning to wonder if the senior living sector as we know it is dead.

The answer is easy. Yes. And no.

To be sure, some structural and operational changes will be required, both for the short term and the long haul. Perhaps most notably, operators will have to make an unprecedented commitment to infection control, especially while a virus with no known cure or proven vaccine rages on.

Physical plant changes will be necessitated as well. And can anyone doubt that new marketing messages will be needed? Let’s face it, “come join the crowd” is not exactly the phrase that pays right now.

These and other challenges will affect operators to varying degrees. All will pose a bit of hardship, at least for the coming months and perhaps years.

But as bad as this year has been, observant operators have learned an important lesson: the government considers senior living too important to fail.

Before you spit up your coffee, please hear me out.

Could the government have helped with the pandemic sooner, and more aggressively? Absolutely. But that does not negate the help that actually has occurred.

The federal government has redirected billions and billions of dollars toward finding a cure for COVID-19. It has spent billions and billions more on PPE and other medical supplies. And it basically throwing billions of dollars at senior living organizations, via what amounts to freebie loans and other financial sweeteners. When’s the last time that happened?

There was a time when senior living, and especially skilled care, was seen as a healthcare outlier. But the actions we have seen in recent months makes it clear that policymakers are altering their perceptions.

Do nursing homes and assisted living communities have the same kind of political clout as docs, hospitals, insurers or pharmaceutical companies? Of course not. But eldercare operators now have much, much more.

There is a growing recognition on the Hill and at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services that if eldercare communities are allowed to perish, millions of older frail people needing assistance are going to have no place to go. Then what?

Yes, some senior living communities will not make it. But many more will survive and get stronger. Best of all, Uncle Sam is making it clearer that times have changed – and he has your back.

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