Connection, Tech and Planning: 3 Lessons That Senior Living Providers Must Carry Into 2021

By John Franklin, Principal at Pearl Creek Advisors

The entire senior living sector has learned a lot from 2020. And to remain viable going forward, every provider across the sector—regardless of size, market or sponsor—must do its part to apply the lessons of this year so that organizational missions can advance, and older adults can continue to have safe, enriching options for their retirement years. Here are three of the most important lessons that we must heed in 2021.

This article is part of a series that supports Love & Company’s webinar, “Focus on 2021: Insights and Strategies for a Successful Year.” Watch the recording of the 90-minute session by clicking here.

1. Remember the importance of social connection

As the pandemic forced many of us to stay in our homes, those orders also applied to Life Plan Community residents. For those people in particular, stay-at-home orders deprived them of one of the main benefits of community living: social connection.

Social connection is a key determinant of health. White papers have been written on the topic and science has supported the importance of social connection, especially for our elderly population. When this was lost, it left residents lonely and anxious in their apartments, with some family members even opting to remove them from communities. We—for our residents and our censuses—can’t let residents go without true, meaningful social connection in 2021.

Senior living communities need to act upon the importance of social connection and create ways for their residents to connect despite limited opportunities for in-person activities and socializing. One way is to provide tablets or basic laptops to residents and train them on how to use them, so they can video chat with family and friends.

Enabling social connection amid COVID-19 can also be accomplished by using tools and communication channels—campus TV, a resident portal or app or even a Facebook group—to keep residents informed (which also eases anxiety). This helps residents hear from a trusted source at regular intervals as to what is happening and why.

Empathizing with residents and keeping them virtually connected to others also increases the chances that they will tell their loved ones that they’re happy and safe, thereby turning your residents into one of your best sales tools.

It’s a bold operational step to invest in the tools, technology and training to make this happen, but it preserves what might be the main value proposition of any senior living community both today and in the future.

“We are all people and we thrive on feeling like we’re part of something bigger and that we matter,” Sean Kelly, president & CEO of Kendal Corporation and a co-panelist on the webinar, said. “Coming through this period we are recognizing the emergence of the marketplace of baby boomers who have expectations of feeling more engaged and part of a community, feeling like they have a voice and can make a difference where they live.

“The pandemic has accelerated this completely and communities will need to cater to them as we emerge from COVID-19 and onward.”

2. Lean into new tech tools, especially for healthcare management

2020 has also exposed a weakness across our field: healthcare navigation and coordination for residents at Life Plan Communities. Most senior living organizations have fallen short of creating and adopting technology-based platforms for helping their residents (and their families) navigate the healthcare system as their needs evolve.

I’ve heard stories about how adult children, whose parents lived at high-quality Life Plan Communities, have discussed healthcare navigation services with community leadership just to be told that the community does not offer them. This is not what residents, or their adult children, want to hear about coordinating their future care, especially when that is one of today’s main value propositions of Life Plan Communities.

Fortunately, leaning into new tech-based solutions can be the route toward getting our sector up to speed and providing more value to Life Plan Community members. The hospital and healthcare sector has been ahead of our field by about 15 years when it comes to digital platforms designed to help patients (in our case, residents) navigate their care plans and healthcare information. Putting these digital solutions or platforms in place is a good place for providers to start.

Taking this a step further, telehealth will be critical for senior living providers, both for meeting expectations of residents and their families and for helping residents to live healthier, happier lives. Similar to enabling social connection using technology like tablets and laptops, communities that embrace telehealth options are empowering residents to take a more proactive approach to their wellness—which can keep them thriving and living independently for longer.

Looking even further down the road, amazing potential exists for communities to use technology to enhance their approach to higher levels of care. With tech tools currently in development like wearable health trackers that monitor a person’s vital signs and use algorithms to predict the likelihood of a medical event, I predict that the skilled nursing bed will become obsolete before long. If people can stay at home (or in their apartment at a Life Plan Community) longer using smart devices and telehealth, would skilled nursing beds need to exist?

The paradigm is shifting, and tech is driving these changes. Don’t get left behind!

3. Plan, no matter what

Even though little went according to plan this year, I can’t overstate the importance of planning for the future of your organization, especially if your organization finds itself in a challenging spot.

Taking a look at operations is a great starting point. Work with a trusted team to plot out three possible scenarios for all of 2021 and perhaps beyond, such as three- and five-year outlooks. The first scenario here would reflect things basically staying the same. The second would be the best-case scenario, and the third would be the worst-case scenario.

Take an honest look, and determine where your organization would be financially in all three scenarios. Most importantly, devise a strategy for all of the possible outcomes.

If your organization would not be able to satisfactorily operate in any of the three scenarios, perhaps it’s time to seek a partner for marketing support or even a healthy partner for a potential affiliation, merger or acquisition.

“From a long-term viability perspective, if you’re a small provider, it may be worthwhile to consider a merger or acquisition,” Margaret Johnson, director of the senior living sector at Fitch Ratings and another co-panelist on the webinar, said. “We’ve seen lots of consolidation on the healthcare side, which has helped providers shore up their operations and purchasing power amid COVID-19, and this could accelerate the trend to senior living as well.”

I’m not necessarily a huge proponent of mergers and acquisitions, and nobody is saying that consolidation must occur, but we are approaching what is predicted to be a difficult winter and it will be challenging to reverse course if your organization’s trendlines are already pointing flat or downward.

In our field, especially for not-for-profit Life Plan Communities, it’s all about the residents. Planning intentionally and proactively for different eventualities can go a long way toward minimizing disruption. You owe it to your residents to do so.

For the rest of the articles in the series supporting the webinar, Focus on 2021: Insights and Strategies for a Successful Year,” click here. Contributors from Kendal, Fitch Ratings and Love & Company are also writing articles that go deeper into how to make 2021 a rebound year for your Life Plan Community.

To request a 20-minute consultation with a Love & Company leader so that your organization can approach the new year with a metrics-focused plan in place, simply click here or call Tim Bracken at 410-207-0013.

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