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COVID slows the move to retirement living, but demand still there

Families have been faced with hard decisions when considering movin a relative or themselves to a senior livin facility during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Deposit photos)

Families have been faced with hard decisions when considering whether to move a relative or themselves to a senior living facility during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Depositphotos)

A recent survey of U.S. residents found many had delayed the decision to move a relative or themselves to a senior housing facility because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But most had only paused the decision, leading to a pent-up demand that may increase as the vaccine rollout continues.

Of the 264 respondents who responded to the survey conducted by Scotiabank and data services firm Qualtrics in October to early November 2020, 55% said COVID-19 had affected their decisions to moving into a senior housing facility later than planned. The survey targeted people with incomes between $75,000 and $125,000 in major housing markets.

However, as the vaccine rollout continues, the survey also noted strong pent-up demand among respondents who are looking to reenter facilities soon. About half said they were considering resuming those plans starting in July. Some 94% of respondents delaying plans for a move said they’d wait at least three months to make a move, while 36% wanted to wait at least a year.

According to the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care, senior housing occupancy dropped to 80.7% in the fourth quarter of 2020 from 82% in the prior quarter. The occupancy rate has not been this low since the NIC began tracking the measure in 2006.

Meanwhile, occupancy in senior living facilities dropped 1.3% to 77.7% in the fourth quarter, while independent living arrangements decreased 1.4% to 83.5%.

Survey respondents said they were much more worried about contracting seasonal flu in a senior housing facility than at home, while 70% said they thought they were more likely to contract COVID-19 at a senior housing facility than at home.

Dealing with the pandemic

Mark Beggs, president and CEO of Edenwald Senior Living in Towson, which offers independent living, assisted living and nursing care, said independent living prospects dried up after the pandemic. In a typical year, the company has about 40 move-ins, but in 2020, had 10.

Edenwald responded to the pandemic from the get-go, educating staff and addressing the topic, the future of the organization and how it would be impacted on its YouTube channel and with residents, he said.

The nursing care and assisted living units stopped admissions and visits, focusing on keeping residents safe, Beggs said. The firm also consolidated units and closed others to maintain high staffing ratios in its open units, which remain mostly full.

The company’s assisted living units are 100% occupied. Independent living units are 91% occupied. Overall, Edenwald has 84% occupancy at the moment, well above the national rate of 80.7%, Beggs said.

Edenwald Senior Living in Towson say a decrease in the number of new residents in 2020. In a typical year, the company has about 40 move-ins, but in 2020, had 10. (The Daily Record file photo)

Edenwald Senior Living in Towson say a decrease in the number of new residents in 2020. In a typical year, the company has about 40 move-ins, but in 2020, had 10. (The Daily Record file photo)

In early March, Edenwald had one independent living resident who apparently died from COVID-19, and no other pandemic-related illnesses of note for the residents, he said. Staff members who’ve tested positive have all returned to work.

Currently, the company carries out testing in its nursing care and assisted living units twice a week, and does point of care testing as a precaution in independent living units.

In the spring of 2020, Brightview Senior Living paused new move-ins until the company felt comfortable with its testing capabilities, said Julie Masiello, senior vice president of technology and marketing. The company reopened to new residents in July 2020, and since then has seen the volume of prospective residents match the company’s pre-COVID-19 days.

Making a Hard Decision

People are weighing several factors when considering the move into senior living.

The biggest hesitancy that both Masiello and Beggs said they have encountered is the fear of not being able to visit, or have visitors, should there be an outbreak. And the best way to counter this worry is to provide safe conditions.

Brightview began its COVID-19 vaccine clinics earlier this month. The company has operations in eight states, and some states have lagged in vaccine distribution scheduling, Masiello said. “With 98% of residents opting to get the vaccine, we feel like that provides an added layer of comfort,” she said.

While there are people who are concerned about the virus and congregate living situations, prospects have concerns with staying at home that weren’t there before the pandemic, Masiello said.

Struggles with isolation are hitting everyone, but those struggles have been amplified for seniors during the pandemic, she said. The normal outlets from extreme isolation, like going to restaurants, theaters or places of worship, aren’t safe to visit.

“In some cases, that isolation has resulted in a deterioration of cognitive abilities – so staying at home to avoid the virus has had negative consequences,” Masiello said. “A move to senior living allows them to socialize with their friends every day at meals and during our multiple planned activities.”

Brightview has heard from adult children taking care of their older relatives who are facing challenges caring for the parents’ needs, including meals, care and medication management.

Those who have hired home health care assistance have been finding those caregivers may not be tested as frequently as Brightview’s associates, who get tested at least weekly and sometimes twice a week, she said. “So they come to us for the added assurance with infection control.”

Beggs said he’s also seen several factors holding people back from making the move.

To pay for living in a facility, many folks typically sell their houses. But although interest rates are at record lows, and demand for houses is surging, some don’t want to put their house on the market and potentially be exposed to people coming into the house with COVID-19, he said.

“A lot of people want to wait until this whole thing is over,” Beggs said. “But people don’t really have a sense of what that means.”

Convincing future prospects

Beggs tries to encourage folks on the independent living side with a focus on safety, as well as the prospects to be a part of a community that’s still active and engaged. Residents are still enjoying everything the community has to offer, even if things are still handled differently with safety protocols like social distancing.

Over the holidays, Edenwald held a “12 Days of Christmas” event, boosted through social media, where the company gave away gifts, brought in a bagpipe player and more to make things fun and celebratory.

Beggs said he believes there is pent-up demand in the market right now and that it’s unrealistic to think everyone will live with their children. The company has strong cash reserves right now, which will help it weather what he’s expecting will be another hard year in 2021, though he’s hoping to see a pickup in sales by midyear.

“People will look at which organizations handled the pandemic well,” he said.

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