LATHAM — Summit Senior Living’s newest apartment community has opened at a particularly challenging time.
Though the Albany company has had only one COVID infection among the 550 residents at its four other communities, the act of going out and shopping for a senior apartment amid a second wave of the pandemic apparently has proved daunting for some potential residents.
Summit at Forts Ferry in Latham cut the ribbon Wednesday and has been holding a series of grand opening events this week to mark completion of the 62-unit property for people ages 55 and older. However, some of the potential tenants registered to take tours or attend those events have backed out.
It’s a repeat of sorts from this spring, when Summit’s communities in Glenville, Guilderland, North Greenbush and Wilton had to stop giving tours and very few people moved in.
Those four went on to have a slew of new residents when the virus ebbed in the summer, reaching 100 percent capacity in some cases.
Company officials hope to see the same reception at the new facility on Forts Ferry Road. The first residents moved in Oct. 31. Five other apartments are now occupied and 20 more are spoken for.
Generally speaking, a nursing home is populated with seniors who have significant mental or physical limitations; an assisted living facility is home to a healthier group of seniors who need assistance with day-to-day life; and an independent living community caters to healthy older people who want to opt out of certain chores such as home maintenance and live among their peers, with the option for scheduled activity and services.
The COVID-19 pandemic has torn through nursing homes nationwide and extracted a terrible death toll. Assisted living facilities have fared much better.
But independent living communities have had mixed results, said Jennifer Nelligan, Summit’s marketing director.
Senior housing doesn’t have the strict regulatory structure that governs nursing homes, she said, nor even a standard set of guidelines.
Independent living facilities that took the initiative and prepared for COVID as it reached the United States fared better than those that didn’t, she said.
“We really had to strike the balance, we did not want to shut our doors and hunker down to the point where people were being harmed more than they were being helped,” Nelligan said.
The Connected Life program at Summit’s facilities, which is one of the things that make them a community rather than an apartment house (and the monthly rent $500 to $1,000 higher) had to be significantly curtailed as large gatherings were banned.
But as things like the daily communal continental breakfast halted, the staff delivered breakfast foods to apartments.
“We couldn’t pack our room for tai chi or balance classes but we could move those classes outdoors,” Nelligan said. “We simply had to adapt. And we had to stay focused on not only keeping the virus out, which we did successfully, but taking care of the mental, emotional and physical wellbeing of our residents too because we knew the damage that the isolation could cause.”
Administrators knew that sooner or later, COVID would touch their communities. And it did — the Friday before Easter, when an asymptomatic resident with an unrelated medical complaint was tested by her doctor as a precautionary measure, they said.
That Saturday and on Easter Sunday, Summit worked with contact tracers to determine who else had been in close contact with the COVID-positive resident. It turned out to be just one other resident, who was quarantined but later tested negative, they said.
There were no other infections before or since, for which luck is partly to credit, Nelligan said. Being able to respond quickly and effectively to that one infection was not luck but preparation, she added.
“Knowing that there was a likelihood that we would have positive cases … we had policies and protocols in place. So we weren’t inventing what we were doing and learning as we were going along,” Nelligan said.
As Summit worked to maintain residents’ physical and emotional health during the height of the pandemic in New York, the big unknown was whether its marketing efforts would bounce back after the virus ebbed.
Seniors have been advised to isolate and be careful, and have constituted a wide majority of those killed by the virus.
“I think that we were really concerned that [new occupancy] would slow down completely,” Nelligan said. “What’s fascinating to me, still to this day, is for the three operational communities, two of them filled completely. We operate at a 90 percent-plus occupancy anyway, but two of our properties filled completely.
“On June 15 we started touring in person and it was not a trickle — those floodgates opened and we’ve moved people in steadily.”
The Guilderland community was brand new when the pandemic hit; the other three communities have more residents now than before the crisis.
Looking forward, it appears Summit will have to do more of the work it has done the last eight months, keeping residents healthy and content while trying to market the new Forts Ferry community.
“As we look at the numbers in the Capital Region increase, we’re already thinking, ‘What did we learn from the first shutdown? What will we modify, what do we have to do?’” Nelligan said.
She expects Forts Ferry — which Summit considers its “boutique” community — will fill to occupancy, but not as quickly as it would have in the pre-COVID era.