John O'Connor
John O’Connor

We often hear that the line separating senior living from skilled care has blurred.

The old saw about one being a lifestyle choice and the other being a healthcare adjunct is no longer valid, many would claim.

But every now and then, we get a stark reminder that although some gaps have narrowed, others still remain. The COVID-19 pandemic has provided the most recent reminder.

As it happens, the town where I live has both a senior living and skilled care operator. By industry standards, both are highly reputable.

Sadly, neither has been spared by the spreading pandemic. In the case of the senior living community, 60 cases have been reported so far. For the skilled care operator, the number is 31.

Given that the skilled care operator houses 200 residents whereas the senior living community has 134, the case disparity alone should tell you something.

The death tally tells you something more. So far, one person has died at the skilled care facility. The total for the assisted living community less than a mile away? Twenty.

A reasonable person can draw several conclusions here.

The first and most obvious is that COVID-19 literally has been walking through the front door at both places.

Here’s the other: Say what you will about nursing homes, they are doing a much better job at preventing resident infections – and making sure those who do get infected are kept alive.

Now admittedly, two facilities in one town hardly can be described as a representative sample size. And let’s be honest, neither sector should feel particularly proud about the number of cases or deaths taking place on their properties.

But for comparison sake, it would appear there is no comparison.

And it’s not too difficult to see why. Infection control is a major part of running a skilled nursing facility. For senior living? Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. At least, that’s been the historic trend.

As senior living occupancy levels decline precipitously and more families reconsider the value of congregate living, a new conversation is emerging across the field: how should senior living adapt?

We’re hearing about the death of buffets, design that encourages social distancing, and other adjustments required for walls and services.

These are all well and good – and certainly are necessary at a time when no coronavirus vaccine exists.

But what about the proverbial elephant in the room, infection control?

The senior living sector needs to make dramatic improvements here for two important reasons.

The first and most important is that it will help prevent the deaths of your residents. The second is that it might also help prevent the death of your business.

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