Brookdale Talks Tech Flops … and a Surprise Hit

With a glut of technology targeting senior living, not everything out there is right for residents or providers. And seemingly good ideas may turn out to be flops in a trial run, while others are surprise hits.

We’ve taken a look at how some technologies become winners in senior living settings, but now we’re focusing on how different technology experiments with Brookdale Senior Living (NYSE: BKD) illustrate the challenges of finding a product that works.

“Aging is going mainstream,” Andrew Smith, Brookdale’s director of innovation and strategy, told Senior Housing News. “We talk about it more, and the demographics have caused all industries to start to consider the aging population, including the economic targets with this population and how we deal with it. There’s been a proliferation of consumer technology that has been targeted toward younger and middle-age people for their convenience, but have obvious applications for seniors who may have limitations of their own, and they can take advantage of it.”

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Brookdale’s ongoing Entrepreneur in Residence program enables the company to be exposed to several new technologies and products as entrepreneurs live in a community for a few days and test out their products. Not all products become beloved by seniors, but entrepreneurs get valuable feedback from real residents.

Here are a few technologies that may have missed the mark in their introduction to Brookdale residents and one activity that has unexpectedly taken off:

A Wet and Wild Idea

An idea borrowed from theme and water parks, body dryers were tested out at a Brookdale through its residency program. Brookdale teamed up with Care Dryers, the healthcare business arm of supplier Haystack Dryers, to test out the dryer in a senior living setting for a week.

The idea is that a person steps into a body dryer, which resembles a photo booth kiosk, after bathing, according to Smith. The device dries off a user in a few minutes while they experience soothing warm air and heat lamps.

For seniors with more difficulty performing tasks on their own, it was hypothesized the dryer could better enable caregivers and cut down on expenses for towel laundry. In addition, the dryer was thought to be more gentle on senior skin than towels.

Despite all these proposed benefits, the dryer didn’t spark much interest at Brookdale. In fact, only a few residents opted to try it. These seniors were memory care residents who were escorted with caregivers, according to Smith.  The lack of excitement for the technology may have been due to how it was implemented at the community.

“We made the mistake of putting the dryer in a model apartment and asking residents if they would come in to experience the dryer,” Smith explained. “We attempted to get residents to agree to taking their shower in the model apartment and then using the body dryer. Not one resident agreed to take a shower in the model apartment and then use the body dryer. …If we did it over again, we would put the dryer in one of our spas.”

Haystack Dryers has been in business since 2000 and has a UK base in the south of England. Its healthcare branch of business has only been around for the last year or so, according to Wayne Jacks, American operations manager, who agrees a different setting for the dryer could have resulted in a different outcome with Brookdale.

“Sadly, where we went wrong with the program is that we were in the wrong facility,” he said. “If we had been at the communal spa or bathing area, the dryer would have been perfectly suited to that environment.

However, the body dryers have been a huge hit outside of the United States, according to Jacks.

“I think the U.S. is very different from the rest of Europe,” he told SHN. “We operate in 36 countries. One of our successes is in Holland, where our dryers are unbelievably popular. That popularity doesn’t translate to the U.S. …We have to start all over.”

Smart TV, Smarter Residents

Another technology that was introduced to Brookdale through the entrepreneur program was a TV-watching device, similar to a Roku or Apple TV. The device had additional functions to connect residents with chats for shared interests and display a menu of curated options. For example, World War II enthusiasts could connect over this type of content.

The program put the technology in the hands of a small group of seniors at one Brookdale community. In this case, the group was too smart for the technology, in a sense, according to Smith. The community, located in Torrence, California, was chock full of engineers and rocket scientists who were not an exact match for the device.

“We found 85-year-olds with Apple watches, desktop computers,” said Smith of the residents in the community. “It was not a great fit for that resident population. It was more fit for a population who needed a little more help using tablets and computers. …It was a dud for that population.”

Too Much Screen Time

While some technologies proved to be overly simplistic for some seniors, others have shown to be, perhaps, overly functional. Touch screen displays were an example of this, as Brookdale found out once the company started investing in digital signs in several communities a few years ago, in an initiative that did not stem from its entrepreneur residency program.

“One of the areas that has not caught on is digital signage, and specifically touch screen,” Smith said. “There was a lot of excitement around touchscreen signs, which could display photos, menus, activity calendars, etc. We found that while residents like the opportunity to see those items, the touch screen component was more than was necessary.”

As a result, Brookdale shifted gears.

“We thought it was going to be a big hit, but then we moved away from it,” Smith said.

Destination: Nostalgia

While the residency program gives Brookdale the chance to see new technology, the main goal is to benefit entrepreneurs looking to break into the senior living space. Yet sometimes, Brookdale finds a product so enticing they consider expanding it.

Such was the case with one this year’s favorite holiday gifts, which was a surprise hit among seniors, according to Smith, who said the company didn’t know what was going to happen when it was introduced to residents. Brookdale teamed up with Rendever Health, a virtual reality startup with MIT roots, that is developing virtual reality entertainment programs aimed at seniors in assisted living.

A virtual reality device was tested over a period of five days in a community near Boston, after Brookdale invited Rendever Health to the residency program. Virtual reality games and programs enabled seniors to be transported to scenes that evoked nostalgia, according to Smith, and many became smitten with the devices.

“Residents who experienced it absolutely loved it,” he said. “Residents were in tears seeing their own homes again. One visited a restaurant he had built in Italy using virtual reality. They had really positive experiences. That has caused us to consider a paid pilot to improve resident engagement.”

While Brookdale often knows what sort of technology it wants to roll out across its communities, with more than 1,000 of them, it can be challenging to pick the right products.

“I love the opportunity to find things that are valuable for our customers,” Smith said. “If technology opportunities were a food, we aren’t at risk of starving—we’re at risk of choking. There’s so much out there that we have to be careful about what we go after.”

Written by Amy Baxter

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