By Jack Cumming

These are tough times for everyone, and for no one more than leaders in senior living. We have been assaulted by an unseen enemy, which is difficult to combat. What will life be like afterward? While I’m old enough to have had some experience with similar catastrophes, common sense, more than experience, may be the best guide to what we might expect.

Learning from Experience

My earliest clear memories are of World War II. It was a time like now. There’s been no similarly unifying event since then, other than the short period of national unity following the tragedy of 9/11. In World War II, as today, we made substantial sacrifices, sometimes by government orders and often by personal choice. Food was rationed; gas was rationed; stores were closed; and everything changed.

Today, we’re confined to home; we wear face masks; businesses are shuttered; and once more everything has changed. Our world was never the same after the war. Our world, post-COVID-19, will likewise never be the same. After World War II, we had new car styles – less square and more stylized – and supermarkets proliferated. With time we had explosive home building, e.g. Levittown, and suburban shopping malls.

Accelerated Change

The pandemic may not change the trajectory of senior living, but it is likely to accelerate recent trends. Even the most age-challenged residents now respond to virtual visits from loved ones. For instance, the Drop-In feature on Alexa Show devices has been particularly welcome. It’s the better alternative to the pathos of sitting outside a loved one’s window.

The COVID-19 embrace of technology has also helped jumpstart telemedicine. For too long, the obvious benefits of telemedicine were delayed. One of the more exciting telemedicine opportunities is the chance to extend to more seniors the benefits of coordinated geriatric care. That has proven to be effective in Programs of All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly (PACE). They typically have onsite geriatricians, but virtual availability can bring comparable benefits to more people.

PACE programs are now limited to select indigents who would otherwise require skilled nursing care. Yet, the All-Inclusive nature of these programs transcends anything available at any price to the affluent. PACE programs have proven themselves as giving the indigent a better quality of life at a lower cost; similar programs of relationship medicine and more can do the same for people of greater means.

Corporate Challenges

Other accelerated trends may be less obvious. Those senior living organizations that are technologically advanced have been better able to cope with the work-from-home and home-confinement challenges. Less hierarchical organizations have been able to respond more quickly to rapidly developing COVID-19 requirements than more cumbersome traditional enterprises. Empowering independent local decision-making permits rapid response to local mandates and changing conditions while avoiding the sclerosis of layered chains of command. Management information systems maintain brand unity in leaner organizations.

As the consequences of these corporate distinctions work their way through marketing and finances, more corporations may be forced to ponder their strategic options. The result may be an increase in consolidation and merger activity, as organizations that have been slow to modernize have to look to faster-paced enterprises for their survival. COVID-19 has stressed cash and other corporate resources.

Strains on Occupancy

It’s likely that the perception of senior living only as a last resort will continue to gain strength. It doesn’t help that the Wall Street Journal recently headlined, “Coronavirus Strikes at Least 2,100 Senior Facilities Across U.S., Killing 2,300 People,” while others echoed that sentiment if less starkly. Senior living was already struggling with image challenges, and COVID-19 has not helped to counter those perceptions. It will take entirely new housing concepts like those that followed World War II to respond to changing expectations.

The inescapable conclusion is that the biggest impact will probably be on marketing and occupancy. How can sales executives turn the new realities into an advantage? Already, providers have been using analytical tools (AI) to target likely prospects. COVID-19 has fostered experience with virtual events and virtual tours. Hybrid approaches will likely persist.

Embracing the Inevitable

More imaginative, though, would be web-enabled outreach and support for stay-at-home people. Providing financial products and social engagement to those who choose to stay away is an untapped opportunity for residential providers. For instance, stay-at-home prospects might pay for an option to move in if ever needed, much as independent living residents now have an option for higher levels of care if needed.

Already, the overwhelming preference has been for people to stay put. That may accelerate. The challenge lies in how the industry responds to that strengthening reality. The times call for cold realism and that can be tough for corporations premised on caring. Change is inevitable. Providers can begin now to prepare for a post-COVID-19 world that will be very different from what we’ve long known.