Almost 60% of Affordable Senior Housing Providers Surveyed Report COVID Cases—and Even More are Struggling to Pay for Pandemic Supplies

PRESS RELEASE | October 21, 2020 | by Lisa Sanders

“This is a wake-up call: COVID is not just a nursing home issue”

Contact: Lisa Sanders
lsanders@leadingage.org 202-508-9407

October 21, 2020 Washington, DC -- As temperatures drop, flu season approaches and coronavirus cases continue to rise nationwide, new data raises fresh concerns about the health and well-being of the more than 2.5 million older adults with low incomes living in federally-assisted affordable housing.

A survey of nonprofit senior housing providers by LeadingAge, the association of nonprofit providers of aging services, reveals that more than half (59.7%) of respondents are aware of confirmed COVID-19 cases in their communities.

The new information comes as Congress and the President negotiate a stimulus package that could be a vehicle to provide relief to care providers, including affordable housing providers.

The data is troubling given that older adults are particularly at risk of falling ill and dying of COVID-19. To date, 80% of all COVID-19 deaths are among people age 65 and older. People of color, those with low incomes and those in congregate living settings have also been disproportionately impacted, research shows.

The informal survey also found that 84% of affordable housing providers consider resident social isolation and access to services to be the top challenge in the next three months. Respondents also report financial strains as a result of the pandemic: the majority (69%) say they are ‘cost-burdened’ or ‘severely cost-burdened’ from having to pay for PPE, cleaning supplies, thermometers, and other screening tools.

“This is a wake-up call: COVID is not just a nursing home issue,” said Katie Smith Sloan, president and CEO of LeadingAge. “This data shows why Congress must act now to help millions of vulnerable older adults for whom COVID could be a death sentence. Funding and access to testing, personal protective equipment, and other resources are critical to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among residents and staff in their communities.”

The poll, fielded in early October, asked LeadingAge affordable senior housing provider members about the impact of COVID-19 in their communities. Results, based on 278 provider responses to questions fielded via SurveyMonkey, shed light on the many challenges affordable senior housing providers are facing during the pandemic.

“Only now, in October, are HUD-assisted affordable senior housing providers receiving resources from March’s legislation to cover extraordinary cleaning and disinfecting, PPE, additional staffing costs, and operational adjustments to protect staff and residents,” said Linda Couch, vice president of housing policy. “Affordable senior housing was a footnote in the CARES Act. These communities are home to at-risk older adults, and so much more attention has to be paid to them.”

Other survey findings show that many providers are also facing staffing challenges, maintenance backlogs, and occupancy issues. In addition, internet access has become extremely important in light of heightened reliance on digital communications during the pandemic. To mitigate residents’ risk of transmission, many communities have implemented broad visitor restrictions. As a result, access to internet service and devices are critical for keeping older adults connected, both to family and friends as well as to healthcare providers.

“The unintended physical, mental and social consequences from the lockdown are severe,” said Roger Myers, president and CEO of Presbyterian Villages of Michigan, which operates 24 affordable housing communities serving 2,120 residents across the state. “If a resident doesn’t have WiFi, she or he loses important emotional supports. Mental health impacts physical health; there’s the threat of a downward spiral. HUD and Congress have to treat WiFi in resident units just as they treat water or electricity: as basic utilities. They’re essential services.”

“Once the pandemic hit, we pivoted immediately to provide everything our residents need to shelter-at-home. We didn’t do a cost-benefit analysis—we just acted with the urgency the situation merited. It’s proven to be both effective and expensive—meals, groceries, laundry service, 4 times/day disinfecting, mail delivery, trash removal at doorsteps,” said Amy Schectman, CEO, 2Life Communities, serving over 1,600 people on 5 campuses in Massachusetts. “Government should be our partner in this life-preserving effort, if for no other reason than it reduces hospital and health care costs by stopping the spread. But of course the imperative to protect our nation’s elders is our motivation. We urge our government officials to support this work in all affordable senior housing.”

“We are trying to protect our staff and our 500-plus residents. We’ve had to pay thousands and thousands of dollars for unbudgeted items, costs that are solely attributable to COVID-19 response—touchless thermometers, face masks, PPE, hand sanitizer, additional sanitizer to clean buildings; increased labor costs; not to mention plexiglass used to create safe spaces,” said Catherine Evans, executive director, Lesley Senior Communities, Half Moon Bay, California. “Over five communities in California, these expenses are not insignificant for an affordable senior housing provider that is neither skilled nursing nor assisted living. And these are above and beyond our HUD-approved operating costs. Our 2020 budget’s been blown up and unfortunately relief funds from the CARES Act far from cover our additional expenses.”

“Digital resources are out of reach for many low-income seniors living in our affordable housing communities,” said Mark Ricketts, president and CEO of Columbus, Ohio-based National Church Residences, operator of 310 affordable housing communities in 25 states and Puerto Rico. “This comes at a time when health care providers are reporting a large increase in telehealth visits, but a majority of our residents, most of whom have chronic medical conditions, don’t have the resources to conduct these visits remotely. This leaves them cut off from the care, services and support systems they need to remain healthy and socially connected during this challenging time.”

Nonprofit members of LeadingAge provide independent housing and services for older adults with low incomes with the support of a variety of programs, including HUD’s flagship affordable senior housing program, Section 202 Supportive Housing for the Elderly.

A full summary of the results and snapshots of survey responses can be found here.

About LeadingAge

We represent more than 5,000 aging-focused organizations that touch millions of lives every day. Alongside our members and 38 state partners, we address critical issues by blending applied research, advocacy, education, and community-building. We bring together the most inventive minds in our field to support older adults as they age wherever they call home. We make America a better place to grow old. For more information: www.leadingage.org.