The development and widespread availability of the COVID-19 vaccine proved to be a shot in the arm for the senior housing industry.
The yearlong-plus pandemic broke the business model for continuing care retirement communities (CCRCs), also known as life plan communities (LPCs), which is a long-term care option delivering independent living and an amenity-rich lifestyle with access to an onsite higher level of care should medical needs progress through the aging process.
It was a time full of financial hardship, tragedy and fear.
Expenses, including the widespread implementation of stringent new safety measures, professional protective equipment (PPE), cleaning and supplies, testing supplies, the bonuses and overtime pay for frontline workers and staff, and more, skyrocketed. At the same time, potential new residents were reluctant to leave their existing homes, meaning occupancy rates and the associated income from entrance fees and the additional monthly per person fees plummeted.
Staying safe and staying social, which is the mission of every CCRC, became a challenge like no other. Chief executives soon found themselves under the gun.
“It was tough. It was financially challenging to make all the ends meet. Federal and state stimulus money was very helpful to us for closing at least some of the gaps. But
it doesn’t close all the gaps, that’s for sure,” says Joe Deveau, the executive director of Riverglen House, which offers independent living and assisted living options in Littleton.
“Our costs went up — and significantly so,” says Michael Flaherty, the president and CEO of the three Taylor Community CCRCs in Laconia and Wolfeboro. “But we managed. If we didn’t spend the money to do what we needed to do, we wouldn’t have had a product at the end of the day. I always took the long view on this, even though when you’re going through a crisis like this, you never think it’s going to end even though it always does, so you had to take the long view to make sure we had a successful journey through it so that people would look to us and think that’s where I want to be.”
The development and distribution of the vaccine is the game-changer. With it, COVID is more under control in New Hampshire and across the country.
Flaherty says that within the Taylor Community, 98% of his staff, 97% of independent living residents and 100% of the those in assisted living are vaccinated. Deveau reports similarly impressive numbers.
As the fear of catching COVID, getting seriously ill, becoming a “longhauler” with ongoing side effects and/or possibly dying continues to subside appreciably, retirement communities are getting back to Boomtown.
“At the beginning of this, we were stuck in neutral,” says Flaherty. “It certainly took a hit on the bottom line, but at the end of the day, we needed to manage the product and the service that we deliver. I went with the assumption that the bottom line would take care of itself if we did the right thing. We did the right thing and the bottom line survived and now it’s flourishing. We’re certainly experiencing a growth spurt.”
Even amid the pandemic, the Taylor Community made a bold move to acquire its third property, Sugar Hill in Wolfeboro, adding to the portfolio, which includes Taylor Laconia and Back Bay in Wolfeboro. While the organization had anticipated and budgeted for no closings at all during the COVID crisis, 16 new contracts were executed and active adults are already moving into their desired apartments and cottage homes.
The situation is the same at Riverglen House and many other communities statewide.
“A lot of people had just waited. Potential residents waited and their families waited to see where this whole thing was going to go,” says Deveau. “What we’re experiencing now is that there is a pent-up demand in the community as people who would have moved in last year held off. Now we’re seeing a lot of activity from people who told us they had wanted to wait. Thank God for the vaccine. With the vaccination rate so high, people tell us it’s time to make the move. They’re ready.”
Nonetheless, while contract signings and occupancy rates are getting back on track, it’s not back to the old normal for the industry. Nor will it ever be.
In an interview with seniorhousingnews.com, Brenda Bacon, the CEO of Brandywine Living and the company’s seven CCRCs located along the Eastern Seaboard, says this pandemic presents an opportunity for redefinition.
“We don’t have to be a junior version of the hotel industry or a junior version of the healthcare industry. We can be our own industry because it is a unique product,” she says.
“I agree with that. Absolutely,” says Flaherty. “I’ll take it one step further in that we have tried to live that and tried to define that. We have a unique and very high-quality program in and of itself. We don’t pretend that we’re all health care and we don’t pretend that we’re a junior version of the hotel industry. We’re a little bit of everything, and that’s what exactly what we’re there for. At the end of the day, we’re a community. Whatever you need, we’re there to provide for you. That’s what’s helped us be successful during the pandemic.”
What also helped keep some communities afloat and financially solvent while others faltered is the willingness to embrace new technology. The pandemic forced executives to pivot to an upgraded social media presence, virtual tours and online advertising, and to do it rapidly.
Does going digital work?
“We had already begun the transition of putting a greater emphasis of our sales and marketing effort on technology and less on in-person and other forms of advertising,” says Flaherty. “The pandemic accelerated it. We’re using technology more than we ever have. I don’t think we’ll ever go back to the pre-pandemic way. The video conference call is here to stay,” he says, adding that the expanded use of virtual marketing expands Taylor’s reach so they’ve attracted new residents from up and down the East Coast. “We won’t use it as much as we did during the pandemic, but it definitely changed the way we do some things. As for the success, it’s real. It’s tangible.”
What’s also real is that, even through a pandemic, the successful CCRCs maintained their excellent track record on resident safety and quality healthcare, retained their high-quality lifestyle, and affirmed the dedication to caring, sharing and, most importantly, combating isolation.
That may be the best selling point of all.
“As we’re coming out of COVID, more people are starting to look at communities like ours,” says Flaherty. “This is the biggest piece of it. A sense of community has become that much more important than any of the other components, including health care. We’re there when you need us for health care. We’re there when you need us financially. We’re there when you need a light bulb changed. But we’re also there for you just on a regular basis. People have created some great friendships and bonds, and that occurred even while COVID was going on.”
Dedication, compassion and extraordinary care
Ask any CEO of a retirement community what the biggest lesson learned through the pandemic was, and the answer is almost universal. It’s how dedicated, compassionate and extraordinary their staff is.
“But I didn’t learn that. I always knew that,” says Taylor Community CEO and president Michael Flaherty. “We have a tremendous staff. When this happened, our entire staff, including medical personnel, administrators, chefs, carpenters, groundskeepers, housekeepers, truly everyone, just pulled together and said, ‘OK, this is what we have to do for our residents.’ It wasn’t me pushing that, it was me allowing that to happen and letting people come up with creative ways to do it. Our residents get well taken care of because every one of our employees go the extra mile.”
Says Riverglen House CEO Joe Deveau, “Our staff delivered kindness, compassion, caring and the highest quality of service for all of our residents with the utmost professionalism just as they had always done. We were dealing with a staff of 30 in one building and 100 in another and 99.5% of them came to work every day, with no questions asked. They all responded to the call of duty.”