woman putting hand on hand of man resting on cane

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the vulnerable health status of older adults, but it also revealed the “vital role” that senior living communities play in the larger care continuum, according to a Plante Moran research report.

The investigation, done in partnership with the American Seniors Housing Association, states that once the senior living industry emerges from the pandemic, assisted living providers will have a choice: go back to the status quo, which will see growing competition, increasing costs and lower occupancy, or embrace an expanded role in the healthcare delivery system.

Assisted living providers, according to the report, have “tremendous potential” to differentiate themselves, create new revenue streams and fill a much-needed role in the healthcare delivery continuum by shifting to a healthcare model that offers short-term post-acute care, and care integration and coordination.

According to data from the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care, the assisted living segment has lost a total of 6.1 percentage points in occupancy since the first quarter of 2020. Faced with large increases in expenses for labor, personal protective equipment and other supplies, more than 50% of senior housing providers anticipate a permanent increase in operating expenses as a result of the pandemic.

But as move-ins accelerate, and with the demographic boom of the older adults fast approaching, the authors note, assisted living is uniquely positioned to provide the “safe, comfortable care that is becoming even more important to today’s seniors and their families.”

“Assisted living communities can differentiate from more institutional settings by showing how they can provide those clinical services in a way that makes them convenient while maintaining the social and hospitality environment that seniors expect,” the report states.

Assisted living’s advantages over other congregate care settings, according to the authors, includes its mission to promote independence and autonomy, its strong multidisciplinary care teams that develop personalized care plans and its experience in partnering with community-based resources.

The sector is gaining traction with value-based care models — including bundled payments, Medicare Advantage special needs plans and accountable care organizations — as a viable recovery care option that is more cost-effective than nursing homes, reduces unnecessary hospital readmissions and decreases a patient’s overall healthcare spend, they said.

“By leveraging these strengths, assisted living providers can begin to transition from a strictly private-pay model and tap into the steady stream of risk-based contracting that will continue to be more prevalent,” the report reads.

Short-term recovery care is the “sweet spot” for assisted living communities due to its access to quality medical care and positive social interaction. The report said another upside is that people who have a positive experience at an assisted living community on a temporary basis are more likely to become permanent residents when the time comes to transition to a setting with healthcare services.

Integrated care models — such as Juniper Communities’ Connect4Life program — are another opportunity for assisted living to fill a gap in the care continuum, according to the report. These programs offer on-site services through wraparound care coordination, reducing hospital use and improving a resident’s overall health.

“Although assisted living owners and operators are traditionally wary of the complexity of government reimbursement, those leaders who are willing to shift their mindset stand to gain a stable source of revenue that will only grow as the 80-plus population grows,” the report reads.