Useless Robots, Smart Apartments: Getting Tech Right in Senior Housing

The shift from the silent generation to the baby boomers in senior housing is slowly happening, and one large distinction between the generations is that boomers want more tech.

Balancing implementation of certain technologies in communities is a challenge for some operators, Michael Skaff, chief operating officer at The Masons of California, said during a panel at the What’s Next Boomer Business Summit in Chicago last week.

“Technology adoption is something we’ve been struggling with,” Skaff said. “Some residents don’t even like digital signage, but others want to know how fast our WiFi is. It’s a differentiator, something that will be an expectation for people entering our community in the coming years.”

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Skaff and two other senior living executives recently addressed this need to embrace tech while trying to move at the right pace of change, separating useful devices from non-useful, and considering employee needs as well.

Boomers Want Tech

Baby boomers are going to be demanding technology as a basic amenity in senior living communities in the next 10 years, Marc Gaber, chief information officer for Des Moines, Iowa-based senior living operator and developer LCS, said during the panel.

“Residents are evolving. They will be tech-savvy and demand tech in their rooms,” Gaber said. “They will want programming that utilizes technology and we need to think about what that apartment looks like. It’s no longer just nice to have technology, it’s a must-have.”

The Masons of California, which operates three continuing care retirement communities in the state, is testing out “smart apartments” in some of its communities to see what kind of tech is useful and what may not be as useful, Skaff explained.

“We retrofitted apartments in two independent living communities almost a year ago to include some of the smart apartment features,” said Skaff. “We focused on technology that would make a difference in the residents’ lives, and not make them more dependent.”

The Masonic Homes of California and Acacia Creek apartments included tech such as motion sensors that trigger lights at night, voice controls to request help and adjust thermostats and lights, and smart medication dispensers that monitor and update residents’ prescriptions remotely.

The pilots of the smart apartments are still in early stages, but The Masons have already learned what residents like, such as a connected doorbell that flashes a light in the apartment for residents that are hard of hearing, and those they do not want, which is anything that might make them more sedentary.

Going overboard is a concern for many in the industry. One LCS community located near Silicon Valley made a robot that was a good idea in theory, but it didn’t have a problem to solve.

“It was a very cool idea, but the robot wasn’t solving an issue and the community didn’t know how to use it,” said Gaber.

Working hard to avoid using technology for technology’s sake is a focus for Franklin, Tennessee-based Vitality Senior Living, Kelly Scott-Lindstrom, vice president of engagement and innovation at Vitality, said during the panel. Vitality is a new operator on the scene after it acquired its first community last year. The operator has five additional developments in the pipeline.

“We shifted in how we handle older adults. We want our communities to be a place they want to go to, not a place they have to go to,” Scott-Lindstrom said. “We are working on smart apartment concepts as well and will be adding more WiFi infrastructure in new developments. Eventually we want to have wearables for residents.”

Don’t Forget About Workers

Adopting new technologies isn’t something only residents experience, though. Many senior living companies are transitioning to a paperless environment, but to do so, they need workers who are interested and comfortable with using more technology.

The goal at Vitality Senior Living is to be completely paperless in all areas, from applications to the back office and everyday duties, Scott-Lindstrom said.

“We’ve been seeing team members who are looking for communities to be tech-enabled so they can have one handheld device instead of a phone, pager and another handheld device,” she said.

The whole idea of technology adoption is finding ways to bring opposite, but meaningful, ways of doing things together, Skaff said.

“The exciting part of this is we can meet seniors who may not want technology and those who want technology in the middle,” he added. “It’s about finding ways to bring different technologies together in a meaningful fashion.”

Written by Alana Stramowski

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