“We need to improve our census.”

It sounds great, and it feels right, but execution on such an initiative can prove challenging in today’s senior living landscape as occupancy rates hit all time lows.

In 2020, the overall senior housing occupancy rate fell to 80.7%, a drop of 6.8% from 2019.  Assisted living and skilled nursing felt the biggest effects, dropping to 77.7% and 75.3%, respectively. Independent living, at 83.5%, experienced the highest census out of the senior living and care segments, but even that number is still a staggering 7.4% decrease compared with the prior year.

It’s easy to blame last year on pandemic fallout, a convenient excuse that overshadows the larger, and harsher, truth: senior living and care occupancy has been falling for years, with occasional blips of hope that inevitably return back to a path trending downward. Assisted living communities, which enjoyed nearly 90% occupancy rates between 2014 and 2015, have fallen steadily since then. The 77% occupancy rate by the end of 2020 marks nearly a 13% drop since 2014.

Why are these decreases happening, and how can the industry reverse course?

It’s a lot to unpack. Understaffed communities, constant staff turnover, poor communication with family members of residents, and insufficient overall services and care all are major contributing factors. These factors are intertwined, and all affect each other. Staff turnover leads to understaffing, little time for proper communication both internally and externally, and residents not receiving the appropriate level of attention.   

So, what to do? The good news is that there is hope for improvement through technology. A growing number of software solutions are built specifically for long-term care and can help. These platforms are both effective and affordable, and they assist communities in a few different ways, all of which can positively affect census rates.

First, technology can facilitate better resident connection and engagement. Whether through mobile applications for cell phones or tablets, via in-room program broadcasting on their televisions, or even platforms that offer Siri-type voice-enabled solutions, software platforms can have an instant effect on engagement. Residents can more easily communicate with staff members, leading to a feeling of care and comfort. Additionally, information such as upcoming social events, activities schedules, daily menus and more are literally at the residents’ fingertips, leaving them feeling informed.

Family communication and satisfaction are other critical factors in resident retention. Technology lends a helping hand with this area as well, with some platforms even providing HIPAA-compliant messaging and broadcasting to family members of their loved ones’ vital statistics, current health condition, activity and social attendance, and more.

With 86% of litigation against senior living and care facilities being initiated by family members (and not the residents themselves), and with as many as 80% of those actions also alleging poor communication, access to information and messaging with relatives of residents is paramount. 

Finally, operational efficiency (or inefficiency) has an undeniable effect on census. Simple but common tasks such as manual creation, entry and distribution of event schedules, menu calendars, newsletters and more can steal enormous amounts of staff time away from caregiving and resident attention. Inefficient processes can overload work for staff, contributing to an already problematic burnout and turnover problem, which, again, affects resident care. Short-staffed communities are also at risk of having insufficient time for family communication, adding to the spiral of dissatisfaction, resident departure and even litigation.

Technology solutions currently available in the marketplace can ease most of these inefficiencies, sparking an upward and positive movement toward more quality care and services, increased resident satisfaction and higher occupancy rates.

In closing, it’s easy to understand how happy residents, informed families and efficient operations, allowing more time for care and services, all can work in concert to increase the census of senior living communities. Fortunately, technology is here, and readily available, to bring such initiatives to life quickly, easily and affordably.

Fred Peyerl, Ph.D., MBA, is CEO and co-founder of Quiltt, a messaging, communication and operational efficiency platform designed to help long-term care organizations contain costs by building a stronger census, improving staff retention and eliminating unnecessary expenses to improve profitability. He has more than 20 years of experience in healthcare and technology.