Pandemic is Bringing Out the Best in Operators

How those working in seniors housing are rising to the occasion during COVID-19

Today’s facility professionals in seniors housing literally find themselves in the middle of a pandemic with their facilities identified as the single biggest hot-spot category of business in the United States.

Recent COVID-19 figures indicate that 15 percent of all cases and 38 percent of all deaths reported are related to long-term care facilities, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Over 6,000 of the nation’s 22,000 care facilities have reported cases.

These facility professionals have found themselves in a critical position.Their work now impacts health and safety more than ever before. Their responsibilities are now coupled with planning decisions and safety outcomes that have never been more dire.

According to a 2018 U.S. Census Bureau report, in 2035 “there will be 78 million people 65 years and older compared to 76.4 million under the age of 18.” In other words, the elderly population will outnumber children for the first time in the country’s history. These projections have 33 percent of all seniors housing communities expanding by building new facilities.

A diversity of needs

Our seniors housing market, including independent living, assisted living, memory care and skilled nursing, are housed either freestanding or as part of combined campus locations. For example, while independent living properties may exist as freestanding properties, other properties may combine independent living with assisted living. Still other properties, commonly referred to as continuing care retirement communities, have all seniors housing components on one combined campus.

In total, there are over 22,000 properties in the United States. This diversity represents greater needs under one facility team than most medical centers for example.

A short year ago, challenges these facilities faced included preparing for eventual increase in residents, and the strategic planning around when to expand or build the next facility.

In addition, seniors housing has a talent crisis. Most senior living employment positions — including patient care, administration and senior management — are seeing intense competition for qualified professionals to enter and stay in the seniors housing workforce. This trend starts at the very top of these organizations and continues throughout. For example, in 2025 over 40 percent of multi-site CEOs will be over the age of 65 themselves.

Because of the size of the market, the diversity of market participants and facilities, and the many challenges of an aging/competitive employment outlook, facility professionals in the nation’s senior living facilities face numerous daily challenges. The most critical of which include:

  • Staffing, training and supporting maintenance roles
  • Providing resources for training of staff
  • Diversity of maintenance needs combining real estate, hospitality and healthcare
  • Tightened budgets due to competitive local environments

The changing landscape

As if those challenges were not enough, these facility managers now face the extensive list of heightened challenges brought on by COVID-19.

The first area of need is supporting emergency strategies. Facility managers have had to think on the fly. They have reorganized wings, set up quarantine areas, made changes for in-room medical technologies, built temporary enclosures, put up signage, worked on air-flow containment and implemented disinfection support processes. Facilities with known cases of COVID-19 have the added burden of additional emergency steps with each reported case. These facility professionals also must quickly augment their own infection control training and protocols.

Quickly these needs developed into satisfying the urgent needs of daily environmental cleaning and hygiene, training and retraining of staff to support cleaning, disinfection, safe movement through the facility, PPE availability and accessibility, public access restrictions, contractor access protocols, more safety signage, closing community access areas, and supporting the supply chain, storage, and distribution needs for medical equipment and supplies on site.

Looking forward

Taking the time to plan for the unknown future should be near the top of all priorities for the success of the facilities team. This starts with gaining executive support, from the perspective that a planned approach is more cost effective than a reactive one. Having an outline of how to proceed and presenting this to the executive team can help elevate the strategic facilities and operations plan.

Collaborating with healthcare providers on the strategic plan is essential to ensure alignment.

A strategic plan should include leveraging the support of industry associations, vendor partners and healthcare professionals. The plan must be based on the latest guidance and research to effectively implement or improve the use of facilities technology.

In particular, the knowledge and resources provided by industry associations provides a way to network with peers and vendor partners, and can minimize any potential learning curve within the rapidly changing environment. These resources can provide solutions that have been implemented with validated results, allowing the facility professional to make decisions with confidence.

Technology, particularly computerized maintenance management systems (CMMS), have been instrumental in controlling costs, reallocating resources and tracking new-facility-related rollouts during COVID-19. This further highlights the value of tracking and analysis of maintenance activities, as well as the resources needed to support operations.

In many ways there will be a different future than we could have imagined at the end of 2019. But for the facility professional, leveraging the tools that bred success in the past along with a fully supported strategic plan can help shape the impact of the new normal.

John Getha is the owner of NSRE where he helps companies assess facility maintenance programs and teaches how to create sustainable improvements through goal setting, creating standard operating procedures and leveraging technology.

Joe Fairley is the director of development for Laser Facility Management, a full-service facilities maintenance and construction company headquartered in Tamarac, Florida. He specializes in process improvement and cost-containment facility management strategies for geographically dispersed, multi-site commercial portfolios.

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