Now that senior living has become accustomed to the challenges of the pandemic era, it might be an opportune time to start perceiving the opportunities.

Across virtually all business categories, COVID-19 and its aftermath have accelerated and intensified trends that existed before the pandemic. Perhaps nowhere is that truer than in reaffirming the primacy of trust and transparency in the senior living industry.

In fact, as early as 2016, the Seniors Housing and Care Journal formed a panel to highlight the benefits and challenges of transparency in a business model characterized by complexity.

The nature of the challenge could be seen in the variety of stakeholders and metrics. Capital providers were interested in capital formation and credit monitoring. Providers needed data to support operations and performance benchmarking. Public policy constituents focused on regulatory requirements and payments. And consumers needed metrics to evaluate price and quality options.

This was the complex situation that preceded COVID-19.

Then, early in 2020, the world suddenly changed. And not just for senior living. Almost overnight, in virtually every business grounded in a public interface, transparency quickly became an overriding issue. Public awareness, available information and data changed daily, and every sector of the economy headed into uncharted waters. Every day seemed to call for a new course heading.

In senior living, some providers found themselves in the unenviable position of balancing proactivity with reticence to mitigate negative media coverage. With every decision came the potential to make a difficult situation even more so.

Responding to the challenge at the height of the pandemic, Argentum issued a clarion call for transparency in COVID-19 reporting among the states. Its statement insisted that “[o]penness and transparency are critical to maintaining the valued trust of senior living residents, families, employees and the public. As such, Argentum members continue to report COVID-19 cases and fatalities to their applicable state agencies and to their stakeholders.”

The Florida Senior Living Association advocated for clarity in reporting to deconstruct the complexity of COVID incidence rates. In a shared desire for greater transparency in Florida, Sonata Senior Living urged regulators to publish real-time status of not only infections, but testing rates, to encourage fair and equitable data collection, data reporting and proactive testing.

The need for such candor shines a light on the problem exposed by the pandemic. That is, when people do not know whom to trust, all too often they wind up not trusting anyone at all, to the detriment of the industry as a whole.

By illuminating the need for trust and transparency, the pandemic created an opportunity that transcends a few admittedly difficult years. The challenge for senior living operators now is to reestablish their own culture with these two values as cornerstones.

The first prerequisite lies in making information accessible to all. The baby boomer generation to whom senior living now pivots its attention, through its embracing of technology, now has real-time access as a baseline expectation. From the latest infection prevention protocols and guidelines to pricing information, educating consumers and providing access on digital platforms or apps, is essential.

Because senior living decisions are family affairs, the availability of accurate real-time data is fundamental to making informed decisions about quality care. For instance, to gain insight on quality deficiencies in Florida, consumers have access to state surveys at Yet even as surveys citations are posted online, they could be enhanced by real-time reporting to track appeals.

Senior living operators of all types should acknowledge that any effort that promotes transparency is worthy of their support. It is how collectively, as an industry, we pivot from a reactive to a proactive stance and move beyond crisis management to a position of imparting familial and community-based peace of mind, and most importantly, trust.

Building a culture of transparency and trust in practice means embracing the realization that employees are the best ambassadors. With integrity and respect for families as a base, employees appreciate knowing that they are entrusted with the real data, the real news, whether good or bad. At Sonata Senior Living, we have found that internal communications have helped to build and facilitate passion and teamwork.

Radiating a culture of trust and transparency is a proactive process requiring a commitment to regular and meaningful family communications using email, website updates, apps, social media, and phone calls. Photos and videos of residents can be shared to bridge communications with family members. Even when the feedback is not positive, trust is established when residents, families and team members are proactively informed of issues and interventions. Their appreciation for proactive, open communication is evident in their response to it.

And finally, building trust through transparency means de-emphasizing the boundaries between operators and consumers in favor of a culture of true partnership. For example, at Sonata Senior Living, partnerships extend to families, caregivers and other providers in care, education and training practices as well as our commitment to the FSLA and other local chapters of national organizations advocating legislation and public policy that emphasize positive change.

Senior living was ripe for reimagining before the pandemic. With the baby boomer generation now headed our way, embracing a culture of trust could ensure that the next wave is a positive one.

Shelley Esden is chief operating officer of Sonata Senior Living and chair of the Florida Senior Living Association.

The opinions expressed in each McKnight’s Senior Living guest column are those of the author and are not necessarily those of McKnight’s Senior Living

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