For Mario D’Aquila, the severity of what was happening in the state became clear in mid-March, when schools began to close.
Before then, concern over COVID-19 had been growing but many believed that it would pass without the harshest mitigation measures being required. However, when students began to be sent home with no definitive word on when they’d return, D’Aquila, like many others, realized things were heading in the wrong direction.
“I looked at that and said, ‘Wow, things are really bad,’” D’Aquila recalls. “It was scary. It was scary personally, it was scary business-wise.”
D’Aquila is the chief operating officer of Assisted Living Services, a local company that for approximately three decades has been providing top-notch home health care services to elderly clients, allowing them to “age safely at home through its exceptional caregivers and sophisticated technological devices,” according to the organization. The company was founded by D’Aquila’s parents, Ron and Sharon D’Aquila, and was based in Meriden until last year, when the headquarters moved to Cheshire.
Providing health care to elderly clients is always a challenge, but D’Aquila realized very quickly that, with the state heading towards a strict lockdown, those challenges could become unmanageable.
“We are in the service industry,” he said. “We have caregivers with children, we have office staff with children. If they have to stay home to take care of their children, who was going to care for our clients?”
“Fortunately,” continued D’Aquila, “we were able to mobilize very quickly.”
That mobilization included immediately securing personal protective equipment for all caregivers to use and instituting rigorous personal hygiene protocols to ensure that everyone felt safe and comfortable. It also meant moving to a remote-working model in the span of a week, for 35 office personnel, without seeing a dip in the service provided to customers.
“It was crazy, but we were able (in a week) to work from anywhere very efficiently and effectively,” he said. “To make that pivot so quickly, I am so proud of everyone here.”
It also meant increasing communication with their clients and families of those clients.
“Honestly, we looked at the COVID White House Task Force and, aside from any politics, we saw that, every day, they were getting up in front of the country,” explained D’Aquila. “They were speaking with us. We took a page out of that (task force) book and decided we had to be speaking (to clients) every day.”
At first, business took a hit. Many clients decided to discontinue services, concerned about having someone come into their homes from the outside and possibly increase the chances of infection. Other clients suddenly found themselves with other options for caregivers — family members, who were either working from home or laid off from their jobs, were now in a position to care for their elderly relatives.
D’Aquila describes the last few months for Assisted Living Services as being akin to the stock market. When the pandemic first hit, stocks dipped significantly. However, over the last several weeks and months, the numbers have been quickly climbing.
For Assisted Living Services, their personal climb back started sometime in June.
“That’s when the stats started to come out about what was happening at nursing homes,” said D’Aquila, referencing the high percentage of COVID-19 cases and deaths in Connecticut that have been directly related to state nursing homes. “I think those numbers, they really hit home for people. They really began to resonate.”
Because Assisted Living Services specializes in longer homecare stints, with caregivers staying with clients anywhere from eight to 24 hours at a time. D’Aquila and his staff could show that their services were able to keep infection rates very low.
After that, business once again began to pick up.
“It is amazing,” said D’Aquila. “I thought, honestly, when the pandemic first hit, it would take us a year to get back to where we were (before March). Right now, we are doing better than ever.”
Yet, despite the company doing well, it is anything but business as usual. Assisted Living has approximately 600 overall employees, and each of their caregivers have had to undergo extensive training on how to properly put on and remove their PPE — an important step for all, but especially for those who are caring for patients with COVID.
“We had some truly dedicated caregivers who agreed to care for patients with COVID. If you have someone with dementia, you can’t isolate that person (until they recover from the illness). They need the care,” he said.
“We would be communicating with our caregivers every day,” he continued. “We’d be checking in with them, asking how they feel, if they had taken their temperature. We know that privacy is important, but we were making sure they were safe every day without crossing any lines.”
Less than 1 percent of Assisted Living Services clients were treated for COVID, D’Aquila explained. As of now, the company is not caring for anyone who has been diagnosed with the disease.
“It was nerve wracking. This whole experience has been … but we have been saying from the get-go, ‘Guys, if we can get through this, we can get through anything,’” D’Aquila stated.
As with most companies, much of what Assisted Living has instituted in terms of protocols will have a shelf life that likely won’t last past the pandemic. However, certain innovations will be a part of the business’s model going forward, especially virtual communication.
During the crisis, Assisted Living has relied on virtual communication for everything from conducting interviews to offering orientations for clients and their families. It has also provided the company a chance to conduct virtual consultations, and while D’Aquila states that in-person consultations, including home visits, will still be the norm, technology is making way for other options.
“Sometimes we are speaking with the daughter (of a client) and she’s on the phone from California,” said D’Aquila. “In that case, you never get a chance to see her. Now, we can bring everyone in. We can have everyone on the (virtual) call, see everyone, right there.”
D’Aquila describes the last few months as “rising from the ashes,” crediting hard work, innovative strategies, and even a little bit of luck for how well the company is doing. In fact, as so many other businesses are struggling just to make ends meet, Assisted Living Services has been rewarding its staff and caregivers, including awarding 20 caregivers a $1,000 bonus, each, for their work during the pandemic, as well as a total of $60,000 in bonuses to those considered Platinum Caregiver Award winners.
And early last month, even more good news arrived: Assisted Living Services has been named to the INC. 5000 Fastest-Growing Companies national list — a prestigious ranking of private companies from all over the U.S. The Cheshire-based company is one of 36 Connecticut companies to make the list, and the only one in the health care industry to be included.
“It is really humbling to get this,” said D’Aquila. “It includes three years of performance, so we received this for everything we’ve done even before 2020.”
“I think the type of company it takes to get on that list is the type of company that can get through this (pandemic),” he continued. “That’s why we were able to get out of (trouble) as quickly as we did, and it’s all about our staff and our amazing caregivers. They are the ship that takes us to where we need to go.”
If you would like to find out more about Assisted Living Services, as well as their Assisted Living Technologies featuring the latest advanced technology options for clients, visit their website at https://www.assistedlivingct.com.