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Seniors’ care homes: Applying communication lessons from the first wave

Elderly woman wearing a mask sitting in front of a computer

Nowhere has the impact of COVID-19 been more devastating than in seniors’ care facilities. The majority of COVID-19 outbreaks and deaths were experienced in seniors’ homes, requiring a fundamental shift in how we care for our most vulnerable citizens.

We’re already seeing an increase in COVID-19 cases in some parts of Canada and now is the time to ensure we have plans in place to effectively manage possible future waves of the disease. It is critical that the healthcare sector reflects and learns from the first wave of this pandemic, and ensures we do everything we can to keep our seniors and communities safe in the second.

At NATIONAL, we’ve been helping many healthcare organizations navigate the complexities of a global pandemic. Through the activation of emergency plans, effective employee engagement, and communication with internal and external audiences, we’ve been working with long-term care facilities, seniors’ retirement living homes, and home care agencies as they managed the complexities—and learnings—brought by COVID-19.

When it comes to the long-term care sector and being prepared for a second wave of COVID-19, here’s what’s important:

Review and assess your pandemic and crisis communications plan

Now is the time to assess the effectiveness of your pandemic and crisis communication plans. Were your plans activated in a timely manner? Were roles and responsibilities clearly articulated and understood? Did you have the staff and resources in place to effectively deliver clear and timely information to targeted audiences? Were your safety protocols and messages received and understood? A communications audit or after-action report can help you determine if you successfully met your goals, identify areas for improvement, and identify actions and opportunities to strengthen your plans, ahead of a second wave of COVID-19.

Keep residents, families, and employees informed and engaged

Organizations that fared well in the pandemic were open, transparent, and clear with their key audiences. When people are afraid, they need to hear from you. Now is the perfect time to survey your key audiences to understand what you did well and what are the areas for improvement. Did they receive enough information? How do they want to receive information? What could you improve to help them through a second wave? Resident and family focus groups, employee surveys, and best practice reviews are all effective ways to understand what worked, what didn’t, and how you can most effectively communicate before, during, and after an outbreak.

Maintain transparency, especially if you experience an outbreak

A new level of transparency and communication is critical to keeping current residents and attracting new ones. Keep residents and their families updated on the actions you have taken, are considering, and will be implementing to maintain the health and well-being of their loved ones. Well-informed residents, stakeholders, and media will ensure that potential residents understand your plans and help maintain their confidence and trust. Being open, honest, and setting clearly articulated expectations for how and when you will communicate will also help manage expectations in what can be a very stressful and busy time.

Recognize employees to boost morale

Healthcare and front-line workers experienced the devastating human impact of COVID-19 more than anyone. They put their own health at risk to prevent suffering and save lives, and sadly, lost many residents to COVID-19. Being deliberate in your employee engagement and recognition plans is more important than ever, particularly ahead of a second wave where you may need to ask employees to dig deep to help prevent or support residents during an outbreak. Efforts to celebrate and recognize employee contributions through a community campaign or social media content will go a long way to boost morale. We’ve seen how vital front-line workers are—show them how valuable they are to your organization.

Increase recruitment and retention efforts

Recruiting in the healthcare sector is always a challenge. Attracting and retaining new talent during a global pandemic is an even more daunting task. Through targeted campaigns with the right message, delivered in the right way, this challenge is surmountable. At the same time, keeping the lines of communication open with team members is critical. We saw during the first wave how fear and uncertainty impacted the number of available staff. Ensuring staff feel they have the knowledge, support, and protective equipment they need to do their jobs safely is essential to retaining workers during a time of crisis. Reinforcing that it is a team effort with daily team meetings and checking in on the mental well-being of your front-line staff will help to retain those critical workers.

Engage with government officials

One of the key learnings from the pandemic is how important it is to keep local government officials and political representatives informed. Whether it’s the mayor or a local member of the provincial government, they are often the first people media call to get a comment on a local situation. Keeping them updated will help foster trust, aid in the dissemination of your key messages to the community, and avoid the spread of misinformation. They can also help source and secure additional support, such as personal protective equipment, if necessary. There will also be changes to long-term care infrastructure, meaning more beds or renovations will be needed to existing facilities. The relationships built with local government representatives during the COVID-19 crisis will help secure government assistance in the long term. Now is the time to dust off any funding proposals for safety and infrastructure projects.

NATIONAL Public Relations has been proud to assist the seniors’ care industry for many years, and we have worked with many seniors’ care providers to maintain public trust and the confidence of residents, families, and government regulators. Through timely, open, and transparent communications, key audiences were informed about the steps facilities were taking to keep residents safe and prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Through effective collaboration and coordinated communications, key audiences were informed at every phase of the pandemic into recovery, and we welcome the opportunity to review and support your pandemic plans to ensure you’re prepared ahead of a second wave.

——— Meagan Murdoch is a former Director at NATIONAL Public Relations