A national survey of independent senior living residents, staff members and prospective residents show they feel safe and glad to be part of a community during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Plante Moran Living Forward, the senior living development consulting division of Plante Moran Cresa, partnered with Charlotte, NC-based Retirement DYNAMICS, a senior living consulting firm, to survey approximately 5,000 older adults, staff members and prospective residents representing 70 independent living communities across 13 states. The majority of respondents were from life plan communities (also known as continuing care retirement communities) or cooperatives. The average age of residents who answered the survey was 81.

The research provides insights to senior living operators regarding marketing and how to adjust operations moving forward in the new COVID-19 world.

Although prospects said they worried about social isolation, shopping and other daily tasks when living in their own homes, survey results showed only a slight decrease in their likelihood to move into an independent living community as a result of the pandemic.

The survey revealed that 93% of residents felt their community took every precaution to keep them safe, and 77% of residents said they were “glad to be living in a community during the pandemic,” with 86% affirming they were glad they made the decision to move.

Although independent living communities received high marks on cleanliness, sanitation and communications, residents generally gave them low marks on alternative recreation and activities offered during shelter-in-place, as well as the variety and quality of food and dining options and technology.

“The results of this survey, which was months in the making, gave us more than a few ‘ah-ha’ moments but generally affirmed that the majority of residents and staff felt their communities were doing the right things to keep them safe during the pandemic,” said Dana Wollschlager, a Chicago-based partner who leads Plante Moran Living Forward. “They offered many thoughtful suggestions for improvement, which can provide the basis for some meaningful changes.”

Plante Moran and Retirement DYNAMICS distilled feedback from respondents into several themes, including communication, wellness, entertainment, safety, technology and dining. Recommendations from the survey:

  • Carry out weekly wellness checks of residents.
  • Engage residents with small acts of kindness, such an ice cream parade, puzzles or word searches.
  • Use a variety of channels to communicate with residents, including email, texts and hard-copy letters.
  • Provide support for technology resources for staff members and residents to bridge the technology divide and enhance safety and operations.
  • Enhance the dining experience and options, and include varied meal options and fewer meals served in non-eco-friendly, single-use serving containers.
  • Communicate the community’s COVID-19 plans to prospective residents to dispel potential uneasiness about moving.
  • Ensure that everyone has the personal protective equipment necessary to remain safe, including providing PPE during shortages.

“Residents and staff identified not only problems, but potential solutions that are often easy fixes,” Wollschlager said. “We realized traditional outreach to prospects, such as in-person visits, was no longer possible during quarantine. That meant communities need to get creative — and proactive. Prospects told us they appreciated seeing videos and hearing detailed solutions to COVID-19 problems as they weighed their decisions.”

When it comes to staffing, operators should consider staff feedback as they reframe the narrative for recruitment and retention, Plante Moran said. In general, senior living employees’ satisfaction with and confidence in their employers remained high during the pandemic. About 92% of staff members said they believe their community responded well to the pandemic, and 90% said they are glad they made the decision to work at the community where they are employed.

Staff-related recommendations included continuing or enhancing opportunities for staff appreciation events, taking extra precautions for at-risk staff members, and offering on-campus housing to reduce exposure to the virus on public transportation. Approximately 72% of staff members asked for a platform to streamline communications with families.