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Senior well-being is “more important than ever”

June 25, 2020

Q&A with R. Alan Butler, Chief Executive Officer at Erickson Living

Recently, Erickson Living Chief Executive Officer R. Alan Butler spoke with the Tribune about the overall impact of COVID-19 on the senior living industry and the differences between senior living communities and stand-alone nursing homes.

Tribune: How has the coronavirus pandemic impacted seniors in this country?

Butler: The COVID-19 pandemic has brought an unprecedented level of attention to the issue of senior living in the United States. While the virus that causes the disease is indiscriminate, certain segments of the population, including seniors, are particularly susceptible to its virulence.

Seen through the lens of national demographic trends, the disproportionate toll COVID-19 is taking on older Americans makes clear that protecting the well-being of seniors is more important than ever.

Tribune: The news about the virus's impact on older Americans has been especially devastating.

Butler: It has. Those of us at Erickson Living, whose mission is to help people live better lives, are acutely aware of the heartbreaking news emanating from certain quarters of the industry, particularly stand-alone nursing homes.

Tribune: How are stand-alone nursing homes different from senior living communities?

Butler: While many people and media outlets use the term "nursing home" to represent the entire senior living industry, the truth is that stand-alone nursing homes serve a small and distinct segment of the senior population: those who need long-term care to address chronic health conditions that prohibit residents from living independently but don't require ongoing hospital care. Unfortunately, these chronic health conditions can greatly increase vulnerability to a wide range of pathogens including the novel coronavirus.

Other types of senior living communities are significantly different than stand-alone nursing homes. For instance, continuing care retirement communities (CCRCs), like those managed by Erickson Living, provide assisted living and skilled nursing services; however, the vast majority of CCRC residents live independently in apartment homes located on largely self-sufficient campuses. This environment provides those living independently with the social, intellectual and wellness opportunities they need, offers safeguards from the spread of disease and diminishes the sense of isolation that social distancing is imposing on people of all ages.

Tribune: What are some of those opportunities?

Butler: For example, throughout the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, employees at Erickson Living communities were able to provide extra support to independent living residents by delivering meals and snacks directly to residents' doors, along with everyday necessities such as toiletries and prescription medications. Residents also have ready access to campus-based telemedicine services as well as on-site medical facilities to accommodate in-person consultations.

With all their pressing needs met right on campus, independent living residents could remain safely in their apartment homes. Consistent with guidelines issued by local, state and federal health agencies during crises like the COVID-19 pandemic, visitation was restricted to mitigate the spread of the virus; however, well-managed CCRCs are designed to alleviate the sense of loneliness seniors living by themselves in houses can experience.

Many CCRCs assisted residents with FaceTime, Skype and Zoom, so residents could remain engaged with family, friends and neighbors as they minimized their exposure to the virus. At Erickson Living, our dedicated in-house television channels produced a wide range of specialized programming, from virtual fitness classes, happy hours and worship services to online book, music and movie clubs. This gave residents a wealth of interactive options to ensure they maintained valued relationships and preferred activities while doing their part to "flatten the curve."

Tribune: Have all these measures helped?

Butler: While no geographic area is immune to COVID-19, many CCRCs have been successful in containing its spread and keeping the vast majority of residents and staff free of the virus. By strictly adhering to proven mitigation protocols, these CCRCs demonstrated the ability to act in a thorough, timely manner to support residents throughout this unprecedented public health emergency.

As the population of American seniors continues to grow, so too will the demand for senior living options that anticipate public health threats and proactively address risk factors. It will be up to CCRCs to innovate and adapt in order to continue protecting the physical and emotional well-being of older Americans committed to maintaining active and engaged lifestyles.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made clear that meeting this challenge is more than a professional responsibility. It is a moral obligation.

R. Alan Butler is the chief executive officer of Erickson Living, a national leader in developing and managing continuing care retirement communities. Erickson Living-managed communities are home to 27,000 residents in 11 states.