PHOENIX—The pandemic challenged the senior living industry to a degree not experienced before. But it also will lead to a better understanding of what senior living is, and a greater appreciation for how the industry stood up and delivered when America needed it most, according to a panel of female executives offering their insights at a Tuesday afternoon session during the 2021 Argentum Senior Living Executive Conference & Expo.
Collette Gray, president and CEO of Integral Senior Living and Solstice Senior Living, moderated a panel that included Merrill Gardens President Tana Gall, Five Star Senior Living President and CEO Katie Potter, and Cindy Kent, executive vice president of senior living and community operations at Brookdale Senior Living.
Kent opened the session by addressing the news, shared in a Monday filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, that she is leaving the country’s largest senior living company effective Oct. 1 to pursue an opportunity outside of the industry. She said that she is staying in healthcare, that the decision was a personal one for her and her family, and that it does not diminish her confidence in senior living or in Brookdale.
“One thing I know for sure is there will always be a need for the senior living industry as a whole,” Kent said. “What I know for sure is, we’re going to take the best of the best of what we’ve learned during COVID and our experiences as leaders, and blend them together to make it better and stronger.”
When considering lessons learned during the pandemic, the panelists agreed that communication was key to maintaining the trust of staff members, residents and families throughout the pandemic.
“Just when you think you are communicating enough, more is required,” Kent said, adding that Brookdale created an emergency command center that produced more than 900 new protocols and documents. “It was a 24/7 operation for months on end,” she said.
Learning how to adapt during a crisis also was a common thread in the conversation. Kent said that Brookdale learned how to “pivot at scale,” using its size — 700 communities in 41 states — to secure personal protective equipment and ensure that safety protocols were in place in every community overnight.
With more than 150 communities in 30 states, Five Star was able to roll with constantly changing regulatory environments at the federal state and local levels, Potter said, adding that the effort showcased the resiliency of her team.
“When you operate senior living communities, you live through fires and hurricanes, but that lasts only a week,” she said. “This was definitely something much longer and enduring, in terms of stress and the amount of work and just finding motivation in the community each day to deliver on the exceptional resident experience and team member experience.”
Gall said that one of the most important lessons the pandemic taught her was that “vulnerability is not a weakness.” Looking at spreadsheets of COVID-19 cases in Merrill Gardens’ communities, she said, made her sad, and she shared that feeling with staff members.
“These weren’t numbers on a spreadsheet. These were our residents; these were people we cared about deeply,” Gall said. “I wasn’t afraid to let my team know I was sad, I was vulnerable. This was hurting me, too.”
The consensus about the workforce crisis among panel members was to “retain the people you’ve got.”
Five Star’s mission, Potter said, is to “enrich and inspire the journey of life one experience at a time.” Keeping the people who followed that mission and purpose means focusing on engagement, learning and development, she added.
Merrill Gardens, Gall said, rolled out a middle-market retirement community product — Truewood by Merrill — during the pandemic. Introducing that platform, in part, meant rethinking the workforce and using fewer workers with more responsibilities, she said.
The result was Truewood representatives, which she described as universal workers. The company took current employees who were “somewhat engaged” in their jobs, trained them in multiple departments, and saw them embrace the new career path in the industry, Gall said. Along with higher wages, workers developed a sense of pride and blossomed under their new responsibilities. The concept now is used beyond Truewood.
Merritt also created an ally program using existing staff members to act as resident advocates. When communities began reopening, Gall said, they noticed that some residents who previously were involved in community life suddenly were withdrawn. Communities created watchlists of residents who were not engaging and used the staff allies to integrate those residents back into their communities and liaison with families.
The move proved a win-win by preventing move-outs and fostering relationships between staff members and residents, she said.
COVID-19 inspired much innovation and creativity in the industry, the panelists said.The senior living customer is changing — members of the Silent Generation whom communities have served for the past several years, Potter said, is different from baby boomer customers now entering senior living; the latter want a curated, individualized experience.
“As they move into senior living, we have to look at whether this is a product attractive to them,” Potter said, adding that the industry’s value proposition must be focused on experiences that allow older adults to progress. “We, as an industry, have an opportunity to create a platform to transform the narrative around aging.
“Quality of life should be ageless. Why can’t we be in the industry that delivers that?”
Also during the meeting Tuesday Argentum debuted a promotional trailer for a senior living film series showcasing the story of communities that serve America’s seniors. The video series, through a partnership with dBase Media announced in March, will tell the stories of senior living from Argentum and 15 organizations that provide care and services to seniors. The full series of “Senior Living: Communities of Care” will premiere this fall and feature a variety of organizations.