Like many in the healthcare dining field in management positions, Sodexo’s SVP of North America Seniors Arthur B. Silva has begun to travel for business again, visiting different senior dining accounts across the country. He’s found that in this hopeful phase of the pandemic, it seems no two senior living facilities are handling things the same way. That means senior leadership is meeting each location where they are.
“We’ve decided to work with our clients and their county’s requirements, following guidelines to meet their needs,” says Silva, who was preparing to travel to Miami from his home-base in the Dallas area last week.
While some facilities in higher-risk areas are using temperature-taking and even Covid-testing checkpoints throughout, others where restrictions are being lifted are getting busy opening up dining areas and bistros, while still offering mobile ordering, delivery and other changes brought on by the pandemic that are probably here to stay due to customer demand.
“Some clients are doing everything they can to bring back their venues,” Silva says. “Some have spent money to renovate during the pandemic, and they want to see residents back. They’re been really coming to us for help to increase resident participation.”
At one senior living community in Virginia, Silva recommended a live testimonial shown on the community’s streaming TV channel. “I said, ‘Let’s film residents walking through their dining venue, and show it from a hospitality, cleanliness and food standpoint,” he says.
Silva emphasizes that when senior dining teams communicate with their residents, it’s important to “let them speak their mind about their fears of the process and that’s okay.”
Some of the conveniences and virtual aspects accelerated by the pandemic are here to stay, Silva predicts, but won’t be a replacement for in-person life. “Delivery, virtual happy hours and fun carts are great, but they’re no longer enough,” he says.
Plus, those conveniences are really more focused on independent living residents, Silva says, not the memory care population.
“They are the population that pays the most and gets the least,” he says. “And those people didn’t have their family members able to visit during the pandemic; some were room-bound. That’s where we should spend more time and innovation.”
At one facility, “I experienced my entire staff dressed up like a circus, with balloons, dogs and clowns juggling oranges…just so our residents could look out their door and see something different,” Silva says, illustrating the extra-mile aspect of the industry.
Finding employees to go that extra mile is getting increasingly difficult, though. The biggest challenge in the immediate, near and distant future is likely to be labor, Silva says. “The work force we have today—some are collecting [unemployment] and working two or three jobs, but not full-time, so we have get very creative with scheduling, like offering 4-hour shifts.” Still, “it’s difficult to hire and difficult to retain good people.”
As a solution for facilities finding themselves short-staffed, Silva and the team developed an instructional video teaching three “emergency meals” that anyone can prepare when no one’s in the kitchen except for one director, for example.
“It’s not ‘how to cook,’ per se, but how to use the equipment,” he says.
Solutions like this will help the industry keep moving, until we see what the “next normal” will look like, Silva sums up. “No one knows yet what the next normal is going to look like. We have to look at every operation individually.”