Tom Grape​Protector is a role we accept as parents, spouses and partners, employers, and leaders, among other roles in our lives. It’s daunting, even on the good days. Introduce the unknown and this commitment to others becomes nothing short of frightening.

That’s how I felt when the pandemic turned the world upside down in 2020. How can I help Benchmark protect its 13,000 residents and employees? It kept me up at night.  

The initial action steps were clear: Find supplies (masks, gloves, gowns, etc.), train staff, track cases, and create policy. The nagging question, however, was whether the execution of these steps would be effective. Constantly changing—and often contradictory—local, state, and federal guidelines only contributed to my uncertainty.

I wanted a guide. Thus, the Benchmark Coronavirus Advisory Council was born.

At an absolute minimum, the council members would help ensure that the infectious disease prevention and containment protocols that we developed would be consistent with leading-edge thinking on COVID-19.

National Health Leaders  

In the fall of 2020, Benchmark asked several long-time, trusted medical advisors to help us recruit a team of medical and scientific experts to provide ongoing advice in responding to COVID-19. Soon after, nine esteemed members were in place:

  • Alice Bonner, PhD, GNP, RN, FAAN, former Massachusetts Secretary of the Executive Office of Elder Affairs
  • Richard Carmona, MD, MPH, FAC, former U.S. Surgeon General
  • Brent P. Forester, MD, MSc, chief of the division of geriatric psychiatry, McLean Hospital, and past president of the American Association for Geriatric Psychiatry
  • David Ives, MD, the medical director of a large primary care practice serving skilled nursing facilities in Massachusetts
  • Michael R. Jaff, DO, chief medical officer at an international medical device manufacturer and former CEO of Newton-Wellesley Hospital
  • Timothy Johnson, MD, MPH, former medical editor for ABC News and a resident of a Benchmark community
  • Dr. Roger Schutt, DO, veteran geriatrician and executive lead for post-acute care at Beth Israel Lahey Health
  • Steve Schweon, RN, MPH, MSN, CIC, FSHEA, FAPIC, board-certified infection preventionist
  • David Shulkin, MD, former Secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

It didn’t take long for lively and insightful conversations, as well as debate, to ensue among the group during our first virtual meeting. Issues have since ranged from COVID’s short- and long-term impact on seniors, advances in treatment and testing, and general health care—physical and mental—related to our workforce, to vaccine policies, COVID-19 subvariants, and the future of the virus and vaccines.

Getting to Know Us

Before our experts could help, they needed to understand assisted living, particularly how the business differs from nursing homes, where a higher level of medical care takes place.

They needed to understand that prior to the pandemic, assisted living was focused on the benefits of socialization and providing fine dining, beautiful grounds, and engaging programming. Infection control was not what it is today.

Benchmark’s leadership and clinical teams, who ultimately created and implemented COVID-19 policy in our 64 communities, credit the advisory council for giving us a roadmap for creating a comprehensive infection prevention program.

Today, Benchmark has a robust structure that is better prepared to identify and curb the spread of not only COVID-19, but also other infections such as norovirus, flu, and respiratory infections.

We expanded our infection prevention expertise by hiring an epidemiologist to serve as corporate director of infection prevention. This person provides community support and education, as well as helps update protocols based on regional and national trends.

We also added a vice president of quality resident services and nearly doubled the size of that team, with each member certified in infection prevention. Many of our regional nurses are also infection prevention-certified, while community nurses, and even some plant operations associates, participated in an infection prevention boot camp. Validating Concerns, Creating Solutions

The kneejerk decision to “lock down” residential care settings nationally at the onset of COVID-19 had a well-documented negative impact on the physical and mental health of seniors across the country.

The advisory committee acts as a sounding board for our concerns in this area, as well. They help fuel innovations made in our communities to better engage our residents, whether by using technology or by employing creative methods to keep residents connected to family, friends, and neighbors.

In fact, mental health dominates many of our council meeting conversations, including the impact stress and anxiety has on our employees. During the height of COVID, these dedicated professionals worked long hours caring for beloved residents who were getting sick and, in some cases, dying. Employees were also getting sick or overwhelmed with the fear of getting COVID-19 and bringing it home to loved ones. Many of these COVID challenges remain for frontline employees.

Advisory council member Dr. Forester, MD, MSc, the division chief of geriatric psychiatry at McLean Hospital, located outside Boston, and a Harvard Medical School adjunct professor, is passionate about this subject. He shares his expertise beyond council meetings by leading “support group” calls with our communities’ executive directors, offering advice to them and providing ideas and tools the community leaders could use to help frontline staff.

Don’t Go It Alone

The council helps lead us through the unknown and to navigate hurdle after hurdle, wave after wave. Their guidance reinforces that we are doing everything we can to protect our residents and the associates that care for them.

They are just one of several resources Benchmark has worked closely with throughout COVID-19. We also learn from and share advice with state and federal assisted living advocacy groups, other senior care providers, and all levels of government.

If the pandemic teaches the nation anything, I hope it’s the importance of shedding silos and facing the unknown together. It will help everyone sleep better at night.

Tom Grape is Founder, Chairman, and CEO of Benchmark Senior Living, a provider of senior living in the Northeast with 64 communities in seven states.