Harnessing the Potential of Technology in Senior Living Facilities

The ability for seniors to age in place stems partially from the use of senior care technology, and just like the aging-in-place movement, senior living providers have the opportunity to take advantage of technological advances within their facilities rather than view them as a threat.

“Technology is both a threat to our industry and an opportunity,” says Andrew Carle, a former senior living administrator who is the founder of George Mason University’s senior housing administration program. But here’s the thing: “You can’t do anything about the threat—you can’t control that. That means you only have one decision to make as a senior housing industry: that you either will, or will not, address the opportunity.”

The opportunities afforded by technology allow administrators to provide services in senior housing that can’t be done in peoples’ homes, says Carle, and it can make providers more productive and efficient in the way they conduct business.

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Impending Labor Shortage

The need for senior care workers is exploding as the population ages, but estimates show that there won’t be enough people trained to do the necessary work, according to a study published in the Journal of the American College of Surgeons.

The demand for nurses will grow exponentially, projects the Bureau for Labor Statistics, and registered nursing will experience the largest increase of all occupations between 2010 and 2020.

“In not too many years, you’re going to be competing with everybody in your market for employees,” says Carle. “How is the industry supposed to triple when we already don’t have enough nurses and nurse’s aides?”

The obvious answer, he says, is technology.

“There’s a tremendous opportunity for us to be able to staff our buildings with technology,” Carle told SHN. “We need technology that will make one nurse’s aide, in the future, as productive as three, today, which is how you’ll get the equivalent of six million workers [the estimated number that will be necessary] out of two million people.”

How to make labor more productive, he says, is where the industry should be focusing technology.

“We’ve done it before with Henry Ford and his assembly line model,” says Carle. “We just have to do it ourselves [this time].”

Reduce Injuries and Lost Time Through Technology

When considering where it’s most important to implement technology, take a look at production capabilities and where workers spend most of their time, or where they’re getting the most injuries, says Carle.

Back injuries, for example, are the number one cause of healthcare workers’ comp, and Carle says that providers should use technology to do heavy lifting and thus nearly eliminate danger of injury to employees, as well as limit the hassle of needing to find replacement workers.

“Japan has already been developing robots that do lifting,” he says. “If you could eliminate back injuries, how big a difference with that make?”

Another area that could be made more time- and cost-efficient is medication administration, he says.

Many of those within an assisted living facility, for example, don’t really need help taking their medicine, Carle points out. If they don’t have trouble swallowing, the most important thing is for them to take the appropriate medication, and to be reminded to do so.

This could effectively be done with a robotic medication dispenser, he says. An individual’s specific medications are placed in pill cups on a carousel that can be pre-programmed to remind the person to take his/her pills at a certain time each day.

“Facilities right now make money charging for that medication administration,” Carle says. “They don’t want to give up those revenues, since most of their profit margin is in ancillary revenues. But the reality is, people will pay for that until there’s a better option; if people can get this machine at home, they’re going to do that.”

And, he says, the medication dispenser he described is already on the market and available to consumers.

Documentation is another area where many senior living employees spend a considerable amount of time. What needs to be developed, says Carle, is a better electronic health record system.

Some providers are already using PDAs or iPads and recording information electronically, he says, but it needs to get even more efficient, to the point where a nurse can speak into a device rather than have to manually enter information.

“Administrators know where their staff is losing time,” he says. “Strategically, think about how technology can save you time.”

He estimates that implementing technology in these three areas could at least double productivity.

It’s OK that Technology Helps Some Age in Place at Home

There is a flip side, says Carle, in the threat that better senior care technology means people can stay at home and not need assisted living.

But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Some people should stay home, if they don’t actually need assisted living. And projections show the industry will be short of staff, Carle points out, so there’s a possibility that it will actually need some seniors to stay at home.

At the same time, though, Carle believes the downside of technology is its ability to sometimes keep seniors as “prisoners in their own homes” without human interaction.

Carle’s advice, ultimately, is for senior living administrators to take advantage of situations over which they have control and to implement technology where it can save labor, time, and money.

Written by Alyssa Gerace