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At the beginning of 2020, Merrill Gardens was excited and hard at work on a new opportunity: Its new brand for a moderate-priced model.

“And then COVID hit,” writes Merrill Gardens president Tana Gall, in an email interview. “Like a lot of operators, at Merrill we went into all-hands-on-deck mode to support our communities as they were dealing with the virus.”

At the beginning of 2021, much has changed, says Gall. The provider has started applying design changes for better visits and infection safety, for instance.

“On the operations side, we now have a playbook if we ever face a challenge like this again,” Gall writes. “We have also developed new policies and procedures that will serve us well for handling the flu and any other infectious disease outbreaks in the future.

“We have also found ways to use technology to keep residents active and engaged – Google/iPads are tools we will continue to build upon in the future.

“On the sales and marketing side, we have gotten smarter about how we can work with seniors and families remotely. We have learned how to sell when in-person tours aren’t possible.”

That’s a lot of change. What hasn’t changed? The enthusiasm about moving forward.

“It may have slowed us down a bit, but we have continued working on our moderate-priced model and we have made great progress toward that launch,” Gall says. “I am excited about our new brand and we will be rolling it out in early 2021. This is a great opportunity for us to offer a product that will serve seniors that don’t feel they can afford today’s senior living options.”

Rolling with the changes

Leaders at all levels have had to summon their skills to make the best of the changes of 2020. And many of them, like Gall, are looking at how to make the most of the changes ahead for 2021 and years to come. What keeps them going, and how can positive change be easier? To get answers, it helps to look at what has actually changed in senior living.

Sensight Surveys, LLC, which surveys residents and families and then analyzes and helps develop and implement action plans to improve senior living communities, has seen a few definite changes. First, clients put the brakes on any new surveys. When they came back over the next weeks and months, they wanted something different.

“This whole year was transformed—it went from surveying folks on the typical things you might want to find out about to very specifically asking about how the communities have effectively responded to COVID-19,” says Lynn Ackerman, co-founder and chief customer officer at Sensight Surveys.

“One thing that happened this year is a number our clients took the bold move to go online,” Ackerman says. Previous to this, not only residents but their families had preferred paper surveys.

The pandemic made everyone more comfortable with technology, very quickly. “We’re just a piece of a bigger puzzle, but the ways of communicating faster and improving communication with families has been a good change to come of this,” Ackerman says.

“Making change in a senior living community, I have learned over the last 20 years, can be kind of challenging,” says Ackerman. “You really have to make sure you’re working on the right thing and that you’re communicating with the right people, whether that’s residents or employees.”

“But one of the encouraging things we’ve seen with our data is a huge boost and appreciation of all of the hard work staff members are doing to keep residents safe in the communities,” Ackerman says.

“And this drives employee engagement just about more than anything else—this desire to be appreciated and recognized. They’re being called heroes, and you see that all over the media.

“In a typical year, we’d be talking to our clients about how to put in a recognition program. Well, now it’s shouted from the mountaintops. Employees are doing a tremendous job and our data shows that.”

This whole year was transformed…The ways of communicating faster and improving communication with families has been a good change to come of this,” says Lynn Ackerman, co-founder and chief customer officer at Sensight Surveys.

Moving the needle

While safety and infection prevention measures have always been in place in senior living, this has stepped up, too. “The question on putting important measures in place to residents safe scored at about 95 percent.”

“There’s a combination of employees feeling more recognized and residents and family members feeling lots more appreciation,” Ackerman says.

However, the changes aren’t all rainbows, as would be expected in a year this tough, with such serious consequences. Ackerman says the majority of negative scores have been around concerns about isolation and not enough opportunity for social interaction.

Painfully missing loved ones, in fact, was the keynote of 2020. “But comments are very often couched with a real appreciation for what staff members are trying to do to keep residents safe,” Ackerman says.

“Frankly, these are issues we’ve worked on all along. We want residents to be delighted, and we want staff members to feel recognized. And we’re seeing both of those things during this pandemic.

“Humans are social creatures—and this has brought us together and allowed us to show each other our true colors.”

Change has good ROI

Changes made at Senior Lifestyle are part of what propelled it to the top customer satisfaction honors in assisted living and memory care from J.D. Power during the most challenging year anyone in senior living has experienced.

As Senior Lifestyle sees it, a big part of what made the difference was their changeover from paper surveys to the phone survey system from Senior Living Alliance (SLA), which offers an ongoing resident and family customer satisfaction survey platform.

Throughout the pandemic, the company continued to survey residents and families through the system—and its responses during the pandemic were and continued to be fast and agile.

“Many of our customers were staying in their homes and were easier to reach via phone to conduct the voice-to-voice surveys,” wrote Cherie Dupor, senior vice president of communications at Senior Lifestyle, in an email interview.

“We were thrilled to learn that our satisfaction ratings remained consistent and even slightly improved compared to pre-COVID ratings. Even though operations had changed drastically during the pandemic to protect our residents and teams, overall, a majority of our residents and families were understanding and felt we had their best interest at heart.”

The regular and frequent communication helped with engagement, as well—and to provide personalized services.

“For example, when the daughter of a resident stated that her mother missed the Blue Bunny ice cream treats offered with dinner, our team was able to read that feedback and act quickly,” Dupor writes.

“48 hours later, our dining team visited the resident with an ice cream cart featuring her favorite treat. The look of surprise and delight on the resident’s face when opening her door and seeing the ice cream cart was priceless!”


Tips on Creating and Managing Change

Trust is top. “Surround yourself with a team you can trust,” says Merrill Gardens president Tana Gall. “You need their expertise to manage through uncharted territory.”

Be transparent. The leap in technology use fits in well here—plans and data are more difficult to silo and store away. Sensight uses an online portal to post action plans, so everyone from the CEO to a community manager can see it and track progress.

Be flexible. “Give yourself permission to change your mind or adjust your strategy,” says Gall. “Our mantra throughout was not to let perfect get in the way of being good. During COVID, we saw many examples of how making a good decision quickly was better than taking too much time to make a perfect decision.”

Stay focused. “We try to keep the goal somewhat narrow,” says Ackerman, “because one of the things you don’t want to do when someone’s trying to make change is to ask them to bite off more than they can chew.”

Communicate fully. Tell residents about the changes you’re making and tell them again. They’ll notice, and wonder, so bring them in. It’s a measure of responsiveness and engagement as well as giving one more set of accountability tests.

Communicate often. Cherie Dupor of Senior Lifestyle writes, “We learned early on that we needed to dial up the frequency of our communication. Executive directors began sending daily, and later weekly, communications when the COVID pandemic began. The surveys allowed our executive directors to immediately incorporate and address the feedback received in the surveys in their customer communications. Our community leaders were then able to demonstrate that the feedback given by our customers is a top priority and that we continue listening and acting based on the input received even during a pandemic.”

Set goals and measure. If you can show that a change had a positive effect, the next change will be that much easier. The record of measurements will help you understand where a change in a process may have stalled and where it went successfully.

Iterative change is still change. Going in small steps, testing, communicating, gaining feedback, and putting the next step into effect with what’s learned can work very well for some kinds of change. Just be sure it is communicated well that you’re using that process, and that the measurements reflect it. Otherwise, it can feel like an endless loop to employees who may be used to more sweeping disruption.

Give it time. Ackerman says she’s heard that it takes 12 positive experiences to erase the effect of one negative one. “Sometimes it takes months for residents and family members to notice the difference,” she says. “Often, change is slow. It requires communication and constant monitoring to make sure you’re actually moving in the right direction.”

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