Ingenuity During Crisis: Senior Living Communities Adapt to COVID-19

  • Industry trends
  • 6/8/2020
Elderly Woman With Mask Standing By Door

Though senior living facilities have been hit hard by COVID-19, many have also adapted to meet the needs of their residents in inspiring and innovative ways.

Key insights

  • COVID-19 has necessitated innovative changes in day-to-day life at senior living communities, and many have turned into stories of inspiration and innovation.
  • Beyond instituting new protocols and procedures for standards of care, contemplate creative ways to evolve and best serve your residents.
  • Looking ahead, consider how COVID-19 will change virtually every aspect of how your senior living facility does business, and plan now for future needs.

Over the past few months, the news has been filled with stories about how COVID-19 has impacted the most vulnerable members of our communities. The senior population has been no exception — in particular, those residing in nursing homes. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), eight out of 10 deaths reported in the United States have been in adults age 65 years and older.

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While the impact to our oldest and most frail is undoubtedly tragic, there are many positive and uplifting examples of inspiration and innovation in senior living communities. For those of us closest to the industry, these stories are emerging as beacons of hope during these difficult times.

Adopting enhanced policies and procedures

In response to COVID-19, you have likely updated policies and procedures and implemented new standards of care in the daily operations of your facility to follow guidelines and recommendations from the CDC and other government agencies. For many senior living providers, this includes:

  • Enhancing cleaning protocols
  • Restricting visitors and nonessential health personnel
  • Conducting health screenings on everyone entering the community
  • Requiring all residents and staff to wear facemasks while in public areas
  • Implementing meal delivery or room service in lieu of congregated dining
  • Suspending group activities and outings
  • Recommending residents stay in their apartments
  • Maintaining social distancing during personal interactions

While these enhanced policies and procedures are necessary, they can lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation for residents, especially those living alone. Buckner Retirement Services, a nonprofit senior living provider operating six communities in Texas, recently conducted a resident survey to better understand the impact of social distancing and visitation restrictions on its communities.

More than 75% of the residents surveyed listed family visits as what they miss the most, followed by going to church (56%) and group dining (54%). Additionally, the top inconveniences residents listed included not having visitors (73%), wearing masks (55%), and the lack of group activities (54%). Of note, 96% of survey respondents agreed with the social distancing and visitation restrictions that were implemented by Buckner.

Innovative examples to keep residents connected

To combat feelings of isolation and loneliness, many providers have found creative ways to help their residents stay connected and engaged. Here are a few examples from other senior living communities to potentially spark additional innovative ideas:

  • Forefront Living joined the global #OpenHeartedChallenge, which encourages participants to share their talents as a way to put smiles on the faces of others. Residents at Presbyterian Village North (PVN) in Dallas took this challenge head on and shared their amazing musical talents on YouTube. The challenge also offered residents virtual painting sessions and professional ukulele lessons.

    Forefront Living staff also packaged and delivered in-home workout kits to encourage residents to stay active. Equipped with items such as an exercise ball and elastic resistance bands, the packages inspired residents to participate in the instructor-led fitness classes shown on the community’s YouTube channel.

  • Westminster Communities of Florida shared how they’re keeping residents engaged throughout their 22 communities. One particularly innovative idea was to offer a self-immersion program with virtual tours around the world. Through their program called My W Life — which focuses on the combined wellbeing of the body, mind, and soul— residents can log in to the My W Life app from a phone, tablet, or computer. From there, they are offered virtual tours from London and New York City to museums, aquariums, and zoos. The experience provides intellectually stimulating opportunities for residents to engage in something fun and relaxing.

  • Village on the Isle (VOTI) in Venice, Florida, hosted a “Class of 2020 Prom” to give their high school employees some lasting memories. Both staff and residents rallied together in this memorable event, which featured delicious food, great music, and COVID-19 safeguards. The highlight of the evening was the “walk to prom” in the rain, but it was full of celebration from their residents, who cheered from balconies and displayed homemade signs to share the excitement. This event was such a success that VOTI hosted an outdoor graduation ceremony for their community’s high school and college seniors on May 30.

As you look ahead to the coming months, there is still much uncertainty. There are questions surrounding the ability to access adequate testing supplies and personal protective equipment, if and when a vaccine will be available, and the timeline and process to fully reopen.

However, in the senior living industry, one thing that remains consistent is the need for our communities to provide safety, security, and opportunities for lifestyle-enhancing activities and socialization. While the approach and delivery may change, the benefits of residing in a senior living community remain the same.

Additional approaches to better serve residents

Continue to adapt to find innovative ways to serve your residents. Go beyond enhanced activity programs to include new approaches to dining, health and wellness, and technology.


You may need to create more space between dining tables to meet social distancing guidelines. This could challenge capacity at some communities and require expansion of dining services to include grab-and-go or home delivery options, reservations or scheduled dining during expanded hours, and the creation of more outdoor dining spaces.

Think of ways to make dining fun for residents. This might include special themed dinners, special treats like ice cream sundaes, virtual happy hours, or the introduction of a mystery dish where residents compete to try and guess the ingredients.

Health and wellness

Health and wellness opportunities may continue to emerge both indoors and outdoors, as well as through virtual programming that can be provided via phones, tablets, computers, or in-house television stations in the safety and comfort of resident apartments. Activities may include guided strengthening classes, cardio workouts, flexibility and balance classes, yoga, tai chi, guided meditation, and more.

To spark excitement and participation, consider creating an exercise challenge, designing an exercise of the day, or starting a dedicated YouTube channel for residents to participate in exercise classes led by the familiar faces of their instructors. Incorporate a social component by encouraging residents to participate in instructor-led programming from their balconies. This allows residents to see their neighbors and engage from a safe distance.


You may have already stepped up your capabilities to help residents get online and stay in touch with loved ones via virtual meeting platforms. Across the industry, we’ve seen positive results as seniors get more comfortable with technology. This could lead to even more opportunities for future programming. Communicate regularly with residents and their families via web postings, social media platforms, and email to keep all parties engaged and informed.

In addition, due to a temporary regulatory waiver in response to COVID-19, the use of telehealth services will grow as a way to keep residents connected with their physicians, all while minimizing the need to travel for in-person clinic visits (unless more urgent health concerns arise). However, with this increased technology usage, you may need to enhance your overall IT infrastructure to allow for better connectivity throughout your communities and to keep proper cybersecurity safeguards in place.

It is also important to recognize that there are some residents who lack access to various technological devices and platforms, so consider alternative ways to reach and engage them. Provide an in-house television channel or grant residents access to community-owned devices.

How we can help

In a world where normal is constantly being redefined, CLA’s senior living practice is here to help you navigate these issues and determine the most effective way to create new strategies and approaches. Our team of seasoned professionals can help you with the challenges you face today and tomorrow. Visit our market research web page for more information on how CLA can help.

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