Ideas to steal from innovative senior-living operators

Creative solutions were in the works pre-pandemic, but COVID-19 inspired even more of them.
Photograph courtesy of Windy Hill Farmer's Market

Coronavirus restrictions have impacted every noncommercial segment, but senior living—with its vulnerable population—has probably experienced the most disruption. But from those challenges sprung creativity.

Over the last eight months, teams at several facilities have implemented a number of innovations to keep dining operations running seamlessly and residents engaged. For some senior-living operators, this sort of creative thinking was going on even before the current health crisis. Here are some of the ideas that are rising to the top.

Face time with farmers

An important component of Elior North America’s BeWell program, which is managed by Cura Hospitality at senior living facilities, is engaging residents in local farmers’ markets during the growing season. This year, COVID-19 regulations meant that social distancing had to be strictly enforced at these outdoor events. To comply, independent-living residents at Sherwood Oaks in Cranberry Township, Pa., were each assigned a specific time slot by their farmers’ market to visit. This allowed them to purchase fresh produce and enjoy cooking demos when the crowds were thinnest. Windy Hill Village in North Philipsburg, Pa., created a similar setup.

Westminster Tent

Photograph courtesy of Cura

Taking it outside

Large outdoor tents became a successful dining solution at Cura’s Westminster Woods facility in Huntingdon, Pa. A tent was set up in the parking lot when the weather got warmer, and everything from a Hawaiian-style luau to coffee chats and a fall fest were held. The latter featured scratch-made apple-cinnamon muffins, orange-cranberry pumpkin bread, apple strudel and hot apple cider.

Growing greens

Commonwealth Senior Living, a network of 35 communities in Virginia, Maryland and nearby states, installed a hydroponic garden in one location about two years ago. Bob Raymond, VP of procurement and dining services, worked with two recent graduates of University of Virginia to create the prototype. It was lower in cost and more easily accessible than other models on the market, but Raymond had the inventors refine it to seal it from contamination and “look sexier,” since it was going in the dining rooms.

The first indoor microfarm was a hit, with staff clipping salad greens on the spot for diners’ salads, and residents harvesting some themselves. The interactive experience was an extension of Commonwealth’s pre-pandemic program to involve seniors in shucking corn and snapping peas—activities that especially help memory care residents relate to past experiences, says Raymond. The plan was to install the hydroponic gardens in all 35 locations, “but COVID put us about five months behind schedule,” he says. “By 2021, all our communities will have them.”

Keeping things fun

An initiative that sprang out of the pandemic helped meal service remain a positive experience for Commonwealth residents when room delivery was the only option. “We held contests among the employees to dress up for meal delivery, and this served as a conversation starter to engage seniors,” says Raymond. For example, during baseball season, they dressed up as baseball players, and followed suit when football season started.

Raymond also focused on ramping up the employee training program during COVID and is planning on launching a 90-day digital training test in three facilities this fall. In Q1 of 2021, he also plans to put robots to work in some of the non-skilled positions in dining services.

“I’m partnering with a tech company to use robots as bussers for tables,” Raymond says, “and the same piece of equipment can do other jobs in the community, like delivering mail and newspapers.”

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