COVID has wreaked havoc on many long-term care communities across America.

Even before March 2020, many senior living and skilled nursing were challenged with declining admissions and move-ins. Concerns about how older adults would be treated and cared for in such settings caused more adult children to consider providing care for parents in their own homes.

Then the pandemic swept across the United States and the rest of the globe, and the most vulnerable sector of the population — older adults — found themselves doubly concerned about life in a crowded retirement community. Eating meals three times a day in the company of 100 or more other people didn’t sound like the safest way to live.

The result was a massive drop in retirement community applications. Units became vacant, COVID-19 continued to occupy staff time and restrict residents, and it didn’t take long for administrators and executive directors to realize that, without residents, the overall level of care and service they would be able to provide also would drop. They began to look at their operating and capital expenditures to see how they might reduce costs, not knowing when the pandemic might lift.

Of course, many of you reading this piece lived this reality.

Cost reduction in the dining room

Today, of course, although the industry is slowly rebounding from the pandemic, community leaders bear the burden of adjusting how they will spend money in light of a skittish marketplace. With interest from retirees still lower than historic levels, the costs associated with everything from hired staff to furniture, fixtures and equipment replacement need to be re-evaluated. Instead of rolling out a comprehensive remodeling of the dining room, community decision-makers now must decide whether to cut staff, reduce the dining budget or simply settle with the dated décor they already have.

Also applicable are the renewed efforts to increase occupancy. In light of the concern about the quality of care and services in senior living communities, coupled with the still prevalent fear about catching and spreading the coronavirus, new sales strategies must be considered. Luxury and elegance become secondary to quality of care and safety. In order for communities to survive in the years ahead, they must have a comprehensive plan that addresses the need to reduce operational and capital costs while still considering the needs of an aging population.

One such space being rethought is the community dining room. Costs related to the premature replacement of chairs and flooring, long thought by many communities to simply be a “cross to bear,” now require further scrutiny. When the expectation is that a dining chair should last 12 to 15 years but it is being replaced in 5 to 7, leaders must start asking why. When flooring becomes torn, gouged and irreparably scarred from the dragging of those chairs, then a response is merited. Why are communities prematurely replacing these components in the dining room?

The answer lies in the design of a dining chair itself. It is a four-legged piece of furniture. When sat on, the chair is expected to be, among other things, sturdy and safe.

Able-bodied individuals move the chair by scooting it up to the table before firmly resting on the seat. But for people with reduced mobility, this process becomes impossible. They require the assistance of a caregiver to complete the task. The problem then becomes requiring that caregiver to push, pull, shove and twist on that chair (with someone already sitting in it) to get it up to or away from the table. The result is premature damage to the chair and flooring, as well as the risk of personal injury to the caregiver.

If cost reduction is to be realized in the dining room, administrators and executives alike will need to address the problems related to the premature replacement of chairs and flooring.

A practical solution

Although makeshift solutions to the problem of premature FF&E replacement have been used over the years (green tennis balls come to mind), they all have failed to address the real issue. How should a caregiver move a seated person up to or away from a table in a way that reduces stress on chairs and flooring but also prevents personal injury? What if existing dining chairs turn, roll and brake?

Aftermarket products such as the Chair Caddie manufactured by ComforTek Seating offer a solution. Made from solid steel, the Chair Caddie is custom-sized to the dimensions of an existing dining chair. Once attached, a seated person can be moved up to or away from a table effortlessly. Once in position, the caregiver can apply the foot brakes attached to the rear casters, providing for safety during mealtime.

The result of such aftermarket products is that seated residents with reduced mobility can be moved to the table without placing undue stress on the chairs or the flooring. Instead of replacing those components every 5 to 7 years, communities can extend the life of their chairs for many years to come. Flooring also can last for decades, because the damage caused by the force and friction of a chair leg (driven by the weight of a seated individual) has been eliminated.

Not only do dining chairs that turn, roll and brake reduce capital costs in the dining room, but they also provide firepower in the sales process. Inviting families into a community to tour the building and view the amenities almost always is focused on the common areas. An empty bedroom might be shown, but largely, the viewing takes place in the dining room, where savvy leaders can demonstrate the person-centered approach and products that set the community apart.

Another cost reduction to consider relates to staff retention and absenteeism. One the hardships that care staff members endure every day involves the physical demands of providing care for residents. From the previously mentioned exertion on chairs in the dining room to the movement of residents, some of whom weigh more than 300 pounds, the job can be grueling. Transferring a resident from a bed to a wheelchair and then later to the dining chair is another challenge. Under these conditions, injuries can increase, followed by absenteeism. Over a longer period of time, the ability to retain workers becomes more difficult.

It is often for those reasons that administrators spend much time and money developing robust recruitment programs. No recruitment program, however, can replace the fiscal effectiveness of a community’s ability to retain qualified staff members and keep them happy.

Value and benefits

Most mobility-assisted furniture comes with a hefty price tag. Updating a dining room already is a pricy endeavor, and then adding specialized furniture on top of that becomes unrealistic for many communities in today’s marketplace. At a fraction of the cost, an aftermarket solution not only can enhance the quality of the dining room; it also can reduces future FF&E related costs by preventing the premature replacement of furniture and flooring.

Most significant of all, when families see what a community equipped with chairs that turn, roll and brake for safety looks like, the high level of care they seek for their loved ones will be evident in the strategies those communities have employed.

Scott Cyre is the director of education and communication for ComforTek Seating, a chair manufacturing company in Lethbridge, Alberta, and Victoria, VA. The company’s line of chairs is available for senior living communities, skilled nursing facilities and home care. He may be reached at [email protected].

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