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“I don’t think the pandemic will change the demand for senior care residences.”
Interview with Francisco Marinovic, CEO of Acalis Latam
Acalis Latam, a senior care facility operator in Chile, Colombia, and Uruguay, has faced new challenges since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Restrictions on visitors to the facilities have left residents feeling isolated, while staff have had to deal with their own isolation and fatigue from the stresses at work and in general, said Francisco Marinovic, CEO of Acalis Latam. Despite this, Marinovic said that the residences are bringing in new seniors and the medium-term prognosis for the sector in Latin America is strong.
In many countries, COVID-19 was a particular danger in senior care facilities. Did you have similar problems in your facilities and what were the key steps you took to control infection?
Sadly yes. It has been very difficult to control the virus, and we learned a lot from the first wave that hit us in May. One thing that differentiates Acalis is the focus and the importance we give to sanitary care. That strategy paid off this year. We did have cases, but we were able to control the spread with the measures we took. We shared our protocols with the government in Chile, which included a significant number of these protocols in recommendations for other institutions.
It is hard to say that we took control of the infection because the virus is still a threat. Some of the most important steps we have taken to control infection include, in the first wave, being proactive in identifying people with the virus and now, of course, working on prevention. At the same time, we emphasized educating employees about the importance of sanitary care measures. The educational platform we created was shared with public institutions to help them as well. Finally, we have a team of people willing to go the extra mile for our residents. We have incredible people who are responding even when they are exhausted. I am really proud of my team.
What have been the biggest challenges in managing the business during the pandemic?
I think there are two answers to this question: First, having families losing their loved ones without the possibility of being with them in their final hours has been very tough. We also seen that although quarantines save lives, they also increase depression which ends up affecting the dependency levels of our residents. Quarantines have worked, but they have side effects that we are working very intensely to avoid. People want to go out, and it has been very difficult to control the prohibition on going out.
The pandemic also comes with financial constraints. We had to replace many of our employees who tested positive to avoid further contacts in our residence. To change 10-15 people from one day to the other in just one residence is not easy, and it has been expensive.
How did you keep residents engaged with so much physical isolation and how do you keep them—and yourselves—connected to their families? Do new technologies play a role?
As tough as the pandemic has been, just imagine how different it would have been if this happened 10 or 15 years ago when technologies like video conferencing did not exist widely. We wouldn’t have been able to keep families connected to the same extent. For example, we have been using headsets and microphones so that family members can talk to residents from outside, looking at each other through the window. We have also kept the families of residents informed on what is happening with electronic weekly newsletters which provide them the latest updates on Covid—but also gives information about other things because life is about more than Covid.
One of our main achievements during this crisis was to show the government how it was possible to safely open facilities again for visitors—family members and potential residents—and for residents to go out. Our residences were closed to visitors for more than seven months. We shared our protocols with the government and had a seat at the table in the discussions about what could be done. Our view was that there was an urgent need to let residents have visitors. When the government agreed to allow this—with of course necessary procedures in place to keep people safe—the announcement was made by the First Lady and two ministers during a visit to one of our facilities where they explicitly thanked us for our contribution.
How do you bring in new residents given the COVID-19 restrictions and risks?
We ask for a negative PCR test before a new resident comes in and a mandatory quarantine of 14 days in our residence. We have lost many potential residents because of these measures but my first duty is to take care of people already living in our residences. The measures are an initial burden, but they might save lives. We have been able to stabilize the overall occupancy and even start to increase again.
How do you see this experience with the pandemic impacting the growth of senior care facilities in emerging markets? Will this depress demand, or do you expect demand to grow with growing middle-class populations and changing family lifestyles?
Once the pandemic is over, we will be able to study the results of the different models: staying in a senior care residence versus staying in your own apartment. While I know our model has worked better than many others, we are eager to keep learning how to improve our performance in overall care. I think the pandemic has highlighted the need for professional elderly care. Also, the population in emerging markets is getting older, families are getting smaller, and it seems the time to visit elderly relatives is getting scarcer because everyone wants to work, both father and mother. We present a solution for families who want that time to not only be about domestic or administrative issues but really sharing experiences and talking.
In Europe, 20 percent of the population is 65 years or over. In Latin America, it is between 12-13 percent. So, we will grow aggressively because we know that families need us and there is space to grow even after Covid. If you look forward to three of five years from now, with us having the vaccine, I don’t think the pandemic will change the demand for senior care residences.
For new companies entering this market post pandemic, what are three things they should consider?
First, one of the main challenges in Latin America in this sector is to increase productivity. We need to do things faster and more efficiently. In labor-intensive businesses like ours this make a big difference. Second, take into consideration that expectations of families for seeing and visiting family members are very intense in Latin America, greater than in the United States or Europe, where it is more usual that people do not live in the same cities where they grew up. In Latin America, families tend to be in the same place: when it comes to their relatives in senior care facilities, they all want to visit and see more of them, and they call all the time. You can have five to seven people coming to the facility to visit one person, which is good but also puts more pressure on a facility. Third, the importance of care and focusing on the wellbeing of the resident needs to be kept foremost in mind when running a facility.
This article has been edited for length and clarity.