John O'Connor
John O’Connor

It’s funny how you can get the same vibe from very different teachers.

One thing I learned during a brief stint coaching youth-level sports is that parents will love you, just so long as you’re doing exactly as they wish. This was especially the case when it came to recommended positions and playing time for their progeny.

Similarly, providers have often complimented me for pointing out the unfairness of it all when it comes to operating a senior living business.

Alas, I also found that when I didn’t appease the parents of future would-be Olympians or happened to point out an industry shortcoming, my popularity tended to plummet.

Regarding the latter, I have been saying – for decades now — that federal regulations for senior living are a matter of when, not if. As you might imagine, this is not exactly the kind of prediction that operators are engraving onto their buildings.

And hey, I get it. Federal oversight is not likely to ease management headaches or fuel additional profits. Quite the opposite.

But here’s the thing. This is a business that cares for more than a million old people every year. Most need help with several activities of daily living. And up to half of the residents may have dementia. And truth be told, there are more than a few communities that are not exactly following the dictum about doing unto others.

The fact is, industries far less at risk for customer casualties are monitored much more closely by the feds. It’s a minor miracle that this sector has been left alone. Or should I say had been left alone?

A recent Senate hearing was rife with testimony that could hardly be described as a tribute to senior living. And to put this as delicately as possible, such hearings are often just the incubator that’s needed to land federal rules and oversight on the books.

My view is that it would be beyond wishful thinking to assume that the recent less-than-complimentary hearing is a temporary blip — and that only a “few bad apples” are causing problems. That’s basically the tack the nursing home industry took in the early 1980s.

How’d that work out?

It would be wise for senior living’s thought leaders to take a proactive role in dealing with the inevitable regulatory environment ahead.

My advice: Put together some commonsense rules that fuel good care and accountability without breaking the bank. Then work like dogs to convince both lawmakers and the general public that you care greatly about the residents in your buildings, and that the rules you have put together will create a win-win for all involved. That approach just might lead to a future that all parties can live with.

Or, you could fight hammer and tong against anything smelling vaguely of new federal requirements. In that case, you’d better be prepared for a fight that, well, never actually ends.

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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