Senior living communities scrambled to respond to the COVID-19 virus that was tragically hitting areas around the country, especially affecting older adults with associated health problems. Because the residents living in assisted living have an average age of 86 years and four chronic conditions, it was like watching a freight train bearing down toward residents and staff.

Many senior housing operators took the early reports seriously and quickly began to adjust their best practices in everything from infection control to sourcing medical supplies to how to assess and move in new residents.

Leadership was essential in keeping communities operating at a level of stability and quality, even while the virus affected many residents and staff. And leadership wasn’t demonstrated just by people in the top positions; staff members at all levels stepped forward to fill the void where needed, working to keep residents safe and engaged.

Assessing, maintaining, supporting good health a necessity

The outbreak of viruses in assisted living is not new, of course. One of the best-prepared operators pulled her manual off the shelf from last year’s rotavirus infection that had affected many residents and staff. Managing a respiratory versus a gastrointestinal outbreak has many similarities in best practices, and her assisted living community displayed a nimbleness that allowed her to rapidly respond while tightening her infection control protocols and staying COVID infection-free.

In fact, residents move into our assisted living communities because they seek support for their psychosocial and physical wellbeing. We accept that they move in with multiple chronic conditions and frailties — that is our primary customer, and we promise to be there to support them.

Operators, especially those of assisted living and memory care communities, can’t pretend they are separate from or not providing healthcare. When there are dozens of frail older adults living together under one roof, excellent systems for assessment, maintaining and supporting good health are a necessity, as well as the ability to quickly respond to an evolving health crises.

Assisted living is not skilled nursing, nor is it acute care, but when new residents move in, they believe we made a commitment to monitor and obtain the medical care necessary to keep them safe. Implicitly, that sounds as if we are saying we offer healthcare … and most assisted living and memory care communities have some nursing on-site, another implicit message that we offer healthcare.

We will be stronger in the future

Senior housing has been hit hard by the COVID virus — both in devastating effects on residents and staff members and also in lay media coverage that portrays the industry as not living up to its expected standards.

There will be opportunities for good operators to plan for their futures and be stronger. Senior living offers innovative environments to support resident quality of life and independence but also must focus on improved systems in health monitoring and care.

As we learned in this most recent crisis, the idea of calling 911 and transporting all sick residents to the hospital isn’t going to keep our residents safe nor portray us as caring and competent. To be leaders in the care of older adults, senior living operators must learn and adapt and perfect their systems of health monitoring and care.

If we are going to prevent another outbreak from running rampant through senior living communities, then we are going to have to start providing better care to our elderly residents. Even in this disaster, there are opportunities.