Mark Parkinson at a podium

AHCA/NCAL President & CEO Mark Parkinson opens the 72nd American Health Care Association / National Center for Assisted Living Convention & Expo. [Credit: AHCA/NCAL]

The emergence of COVID-19 and the loss of more than 100,000 skilled nursing and assisted living residents and more than 2,000 staff members. Changing guidance. Testing. COVID-19 vaccines. The delta variant.

The U.S. long-term care industry has “been through hell and back” over the past 18 months, one speaker said at the opening session of the 72nd American Health Care Association / National Center for Assisted Living Convention & Expo, held in the Washington, D.C., area.

“You and your teams persevered. You never gave up. And because of that, you saved thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of lives,” AHCA / NCAL President and CEO Mark Parkinson told attendees, adding, however, that “unfortunately, this battle isn’t over yet.”

Acknowledging the loss of residents, staff members, family and friends to the coronavirus, he began the opening session with a moment of silence in their honor. “We owe it to them to finish this battle,” Parkinson said.

The delta variant now circulating is not going to “crush” the pandemic recovery, he said; rather, it will pause it. The industry will be in better shape than it is now by the end of the year, and by next year’s AHCA / NCAL annual meeting in Nashville, TN, “things will be back relatively close to normal,” Parkinson predicted. 

“We will fight through another year. We’ll be fine,” he said. “We will put the greatest pandemic in the history of the country behind us. You will look back on this as the most important work you’ve ever done.”

‘We must be the voice’

In remarks that followed, new NCAL Executive Director LaShuan Bethea said that assisted living suffered and persevered alongside peers in other long-term care sectors. But the sector faced a unique problem, she said: many outside the industry don’t fully understand what assisted living is and the important role it plays in long-term care.

“We must be the voice of assisted living,” Bethea said. “It’s important that people know we are the experts and we know the needs of the many individuals who chose to call assisted living their home.”

A one-size-fits-all regulatory environment doesn’t fit the needs of assisted living residents, she said.

“No matter what the issue, we want a seat at the table,” Bethea said. “We can’t leave it to others to tell our story and make those important decisions for us.”

LED Talk

Also during Monday’s opening session, NCAL Board of Directors Chair Helen Crunk and AHCA Board Chair Debbie Meade participated in one of several “LED Talks” (Lead, Engage and Discover), focusing on COVID-19-related stories from different perspectives, homing in on pandemic experiences, lessons learned and more.

“Through sharing our stories and supporting one another, this convention offers the chance to start a journey of healing and demonstrate the resilience that keeps the long-term care profession strong, no matter what the future holds,” Meade said.

Crunk said that COVID-19 “became real” for her in December 2020 when an outbreak in her memory care community in Lincoln, NE, claimed five of 20 residents in one week “on our watch.”

As a small, independent owner / operator, Crunk said, she had to learn much on her own. But she said she doesn’t want the industry to revert to where it was before the pandemic. 

“We went through hell and back in the last 18 months, but we are better than we were; we are stronger than we were,” she said. “I want to continue to learn and grow.”

Meade said the most difficult decision she had to make came in the early days of the pandemic: having workers care for residents even though they didn’t have sufficient personal protective equipment. Crunk said that the hardest decision she made was telling families that they couldn’t visit their loved ones — residents — when she could go home every night to be with her loved ones.

Meade acknowledged the emotional toll that the pandemic has taken on staff members, saying free lunches and thank yous are not enough anymore. The pandemic shined a light on the chronic underfunding of the industry, she said, and dollars are needed so providers can pay competitive wages to staff.

“They deserve more money,” she said.

Meade noted that, over the summer, the delta variant reined in premature celebrations of the end of the pandemic. 

“We learned this is our new normal,” she said. “I also learned you can’t depend on anyone. You have to be resilient, make decisions and come up with your own solutions.”

Now, as the industry looks forward to a recovery, Crunk said, “We have to find solutions to the staffing crisis; money and reimbursements are needed to retain that staff. We need to continue to build trust with communities so they understand their loved ones are safe — and more safe within our four walls than without them.”

Also part of Monday’s session, the industry paid tribute to all members of the long-term care workforce for their efforts during the pandemic. The CDC Foundation presented the 2021 McKnight Prize for Healthcare Outbreak Heroes to all frontline long-term care staff. 

The meeting continues through Wednesday.