Senior Living Provider Turns Communities into Memory Tech Labs

A nonprofit California senior living organization is testing new technologies geared toward caring for those with cognitive impairments by piloting new programs in its memory care communities.

The Front Porch Center for Innovation and Wellbeing is part of a family of companies that includes Front Porch Communities and Services, which has 10 retirement communities and two active adult communities throughout California. Three of the retirement communities currently have memory care neighborhoods, called Summer Houses, with a fourth in the works at another location.

“Our Summer Houses are very open to being laboratories for new technology,” says Mike Martinez, communications director at Front Porch. “It’s one of the advantages to having a Center for Innovation and Wellbeing in-house; we have built in laboratories to test these [new products and systems].”

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Tech testing pilots typically last around three months. If those solutions yield a positive outcome, other Front Porch communities, including the Summer Houses, have the option of adopting them.

Front Porch’s 293-unit Wesley Palms location in San Diego uses Intel-GE Care Innovations’ QuietCare platform in its memory care cottages as a way for residents to maintain independence. The community’s Summer House opened last May and the 22 cottages are all occupied, although not to the licensed capacity of 38.

Each cottage has several sensors, depending on its size, that monitor residents’ patterns of movement and can alert staff to unusual activity. Executive director Ben Geske says the system is a great way to help residents with cognitive impairments maintain autonomy.

“We realize that residents are going to age in place, and as needs increase we will continue to care for them,” he says. “Other than cognitive deficits, physically most of the residents are doing pretty well.”

In addition to the QuietCare system—and a trained dog that lives in the community—the Summer House section of the community offers a secured, self-contained setting where residents can walk about freely. Sidewalks and walking paths wind through a courtyard that features more than 700 trees and plants, all of which are non-toxic.

While memory care-enhancing technology differs in each Summer House, says Geske, ultimately it comes down to providing individualized care for each individual.

“It’s definitely a resident-centered care in that you can have activities and structures in place,” he says. “We meet regularly to discuss best practices among the Summer Houses. What works for one of our communities may not work for all.”

Other memory care-focused technology Front Porch is currently exploring includes an animatronics pilot in the form of PARO, an interactive robot pet modeled after baby harp seals.

“We got [the animatronic robot] on eBay and tried it out. Residents were thrilled, and the reaction was pretty neat to see,” says Davis Park, director of the Center for Innovation and Wellbeing at Front Porch. “People want to take care of this sort of thing, and it empowers them to feel like they’re worth something and are able to take care of a defenseless baby animal.”

PARO, a Food & Drug Administration-approved medical device, learns to respond to its name. It also responds to how it’s handled and will make corresponding noises to gentle petting or rough handling. The robot is “fed” through a pacifier-charger and can be put to sleep and woken up.

Front Porch has documented before, during, and after metrics for when each pilot participant used PARO and found that that engaging with the pet robot reduced pacing and anxiety and helped calm residents, Park said. In some cases, the organization has even been able to use the PARO intervention in place of psychotropic drugs. Front Porch is even exploring the possibility of getting CMS reimbursement for its use in memory care settings.

“On the surface, PARO’s use has been really effective,” says Park. “The average amount of time people are spending with it is 23-25 minutes, and it’s usually enough time for people to pay attention to it and become socially engaged, whether they’re talking to PARO or engaging with people around them.”

Front Porch just extended the pilot to another month as it wants to collect some additional data, which will then be analyzed and shared with other Front Porch communities to support the scalability of the technology.

Another current pilot at a Summer House community is testing SingFit, an app for iPhones or iPads allowing users to pre-select songs that can be chosen for their familiarity or tempo. A narrator reads aloud bits of lyrics, so users don’t have to remember the lyrics or read them off of a screen as in karaoke.

“People are energized and alert after sessions,” says Park. “They aren’t embarrassed when they can’t remember what’s next, and it’s a really great engagement.”

That is, essentially, the goal, and Park says a common issue in memory care programs is dealing with typical behavior of people with dementia who may withdraw and self-isolate.

“Aside from episodes where people are yelling and agitated, social engagement is very important for us,” Park says. “We look at innovative uses of technology and pilot test them. We have a pretty keen interest in anything that helps to promote engagement, or be used as an intervention.”

Written by Alyssa Gerace

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