Lisa Taylor headshot
Lisa Taylor

Through the pandemic, many shops hung signs in their windows that read “Stronger, Together” or “Together, we will see this through.”

This simple, yet powerful, message resonates long after lockdown. It is the conviction that when we come together as a community, we will be able to weather any storm. It is a message that senior living organizations truly took to heart over the past 18 months.

Today, we know that resilience is a primary factor for long-term wellness and longevity. This key trait is one that we saw rise to the top in many of our senior living communities, as operators, staff, families and residents created their own pandemic “silver linings.” In myriad creative ways, they harnessed technology to address the multi-pronged challenges that COVID-19 posed: remaining connected, staying stimulated, ensuring safety and supporting staff. Their resiliency, reflected in these adaptations, resulted in innovations that are actively shaping the future of resident living, today.

Leverage digital life to enrich daily life, both inside the community and out

It is outdated to hold onto the belief that older adults are technology-averse. In fact, a recent Pew survey reveals that 92% of seniors own a cell phone — 61% of which are smartphones, up massively from 42% in 2017. From surfing the web, to shopping online and connecting with family over Zoom, the pandemic made it clear that seniors not only want technology — they need it.

Although mandated lockdowns may have kept residents physically apart, they needed a way to connect with both family members and their friends. For many, technology served as the conduit for those connections. In a 2020 iN2L survey, 41% of senior living residents said access to technology devices increased during the pandemic, and 46% reported increased access to video calls with loved ones. These calls act as a lifeline; the Administration on Aging reports that even 15 minutes per day of video calls can help alleviate symptoms of depression in seniors, by about 50% among a population of community-residing older adults.

Forward-thinking community operators quickly realized that internal, community-based bonds are equally as important to foster. Studies show that strong friendships are as adept at predicting seniors’ psychological well-being as are healthy familial ties.

Although COVID-19 safety measures meant that regular group programming, game nights and other social events were put on hold, creative communities quickly realized that they could leverage engagement technology to encourage camaraderie among residents and support socializing safely. Operators and activity directors learned that collecting individual interests and creating small group events allowed residents to bond over shared interests and personal hobbies. Although born out of necessity, using technology thoughtfully to help connect and engage residents in deeper, more meaningful connections with their peers will help create happier, healthier communities all around, long after the pandemic subsides.

Personalize your engagement technology to help create a sense of purpose

Unsurprisingly, a 2020 iN2L resident survey revealed a 230% increase in feelings of loneliness during the COVID-19 lockdown. The pandemic showed just how debilitating loneliness can be. To counteract those feelings, a sense of purpose — and finding meaning in life — have been shown to act as powerful antidotes to isolation-related despair. Without regular programming and vital human interaction, residents needed ways to engage on a deeper level.

Operators and caregivers quickly realized creative ways to leverage their engagement technology solutions to help bridge the gap. Person-centered technology that leverages preferences and individualized interests can help nurture meaningful connections among community residents. Seniors with similar passions and hobbies were connected to bond over hometowns, spiritual beliefs, universities, hobbies and more. Members of those self-selecting groups now could enjoy each other’s company, pass along expertise, reminisce over shared history, and uncover new passions that help create a deeper sense of purpose — and satisfaction — in the everyday.

Empower staff with technology to build a resilient workforce

It seems that no community is immune to staffing challenges in our current landscape. To say the pandemic helped accelerate employee burnout would be a gross understatement: today, 81% of assisted living communities report severe staffing challenges, along with 94% of nursing home operators. Providers cite that rebuilding their workforces post-pandemic is both a top priority — and a top concern.

As the backbone of the resident experience, a strong — and consistent — team is key. Yet, short-staffed, with limited time and resources, existing staff members often feel overburdened and stretched too thin. Required to take on additional tasks and fill in for other roles, caregivers are more disconnected from the reasons they initially took those roles in the first place: to connect with residents, build relationships and help spread joy within the communities.

To help break the burn-out cycle, many communities began leveraging their engagement technology in new ways to help support their workforce, whether full-time staff members or staff members supplied by outside agencies. It can help them save time by expediting processes and engaging residents; standardize the intake process and vital collection of resident information and preferences; plan enriching activities; and facilitate deeper, more meaningful relationships among residents.

Brighter days ahead

Although high personal protective equipment costs, staffing shortages and historically low occupancy rates continue to daunt operators, leaning into valuable pandemic-era learnings will result in more resilient — and stronger — communities moving forward. Outside of creating superior elder and staffing experiences, communities that focus on deeper resident engagement, well-being and personal happiness have been shown to see directly correlated increases in profitability. According to one sample, communities with higher resident engagement scores saw, on average, an increase of $224,000 in EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization).

Although the pandemic kept us apart, it did teach us that we are all stronger together. Innovative uses of technology uncovered in times of need will help drive deeper resident satisfaction and well-being for years to come. A robust engagement technology framework that helps foster new relationships and connect residents to those they love will benefit the entire community ecosystem, from every senior to caregivers, families and friends. When personal purpose is cultivated and relationships flourish, each day ahead is brighter than the last.

Lisa Taylor is CEO of iN2L.

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.

Have a column idea? See our submission guidelines here.