How Providers are Taking Residents Under the Sea

The 21st Century Senior Living Community is a series brought to you by CDW, a provider of technology solutions and services focused exclusively on serving the healthcare marketplace. The series takes a clear-eyed look at how leading providers and their partners are creating the next generation of senior living communities by raising the bar on services, design, and technology.

In an increasingly crowded market, senior living providers are eager to stand out from the competition. Some communities are gaining an edge by taking residents to far-flung locations—even under the sea.

No, this is not a super-luxury offering that involves flying seniors around the country. And this also does not involve strapping on virtual reality headsets. Instead, residents are going on “virtual field trips”: real-time, live tours of museums, historical sites, national parks, and other destinations, made possible through an array of technologies. For instance, underwater video and audio equipment will be used on an upcoming trip to the kelp forests of Channel Islands National Park in California.


The virtual field trips are an offering of BrightLife Innovations, a company specializing in videoconferencing and virtual collaboration solutions for senior living companies. BrightLife is based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where it operates out of the Direct Supply Innovation Center (pictured at right).

The Innovation Center, created by senior living equipment and solutions giant Direct Supply in 2015, is a hub for startups pushing technology into new frontiers for the senior living and care sector—and BrightLife appears to fit the bill. The virtual field trips are a one-of-a-kind offering in senior living, according to BrightLife founder and CEO Josh Silldorff.

Tulsa, Oklahoma-based Senior Star, which operates 14 communities in six states, is among the providers interested in virtual field trips. The company is starting out by offering them in its largest community, in Romeoville, Illinois, about half an hour southwest of Chicago.


“The idea of being able to virtually go on these field trips and interact with the presenter is just super cool,” Senior Star Director of Operations Jaimie Shirley told Senior Housing News.

An Immersive Experience

The virtual field trip experience begins with senior living residents gathering in front of a screen—usually a flat-screen or high-definition television in a common area or activity room, Silldorff said.

The TV has been equipped with a BrightLife “brain box,” which is the term for a small device that runs the company’s software, as well as a high-definition wide-angle camera with built-in microphones.

BrightLife workers also have installed the necessary equipment at the virtual field trip destination.

“The content provider—let’s say it’s a museum or national park or an author—can use any device, any computer tablet or smartphone, but we also optimize that whole process as well, to make sure they have a high-quality visual/audio setup,” Silldorff said.

At the press of a button, the participants at the senior living community and the presenters at the virtual field trip destination can see each other and begin interacting. A BrightLife moderator facilitates the discussion or tour.

The tours are done through various methods. Sometimes, the field trip site uses street-view technology and already has the space mapped out; art museums in particular have gained attention for doing this. In this case, the BrightLife moderator might “drive” the walkthrough while the presenter explains what is appearing on screen. In other cases, the presenter might have a handheld video device and physically walk through the space to give the tour. Or, BrightLife might help the site create a digital tour ahead of time, even in some cases using drones to fly through and capture video.

All of this investment in technology is to ensure that the experience is as high-quality and seamless as possible, so that they can become immersive, powerful experiences for residents. Independent living, assisted living, and even memory care residents all have responded enthusiastically, Silldorff said.

“The residents love it,” said Senior Star’s Shirley. “I imagine as a senior you either have places you’ve visited and can reflect back on that, or it’s a brand new experience and it’s somewhere you’ve wanted to go, and now you get to through this virtual experience.”

Both of these types of reactions have occurred at Kirby Pines. The 60-acre life care community in Memphis was an early adopter of BrightLife’s videoconferencing technology and has been doing the virtual field trips for three years, Executive Director Michael Escamilla told SHN.

“It’s set up in our movie theater, our actual theater, and we’ve had a full house or standing-room only since our first tour,” he said.

The tours can stir up powerful emotions, added Kirby Pines’ Life Enhancement Director Cheryl Grimes. For instance, a virtual tour of Hawaii brought back memories for residents who honeymooned there. The Toy Museum of New York also sparked reminiscing.

“In seeing some of the toys, they would say, ‘That [toy] was 75 cents. It was a fortune to get that toy!’” Grimes said. “You hear a lot of conversation about the tour after it’s over, carrying over to the dinner hour. Everyone leaves feeling good.”

Cost Considerations

The virtual field trips are available through BrightLife’s “Activities and Engagement” package, which is a subscription that starts at $3,600 a year. Their other offerings include a Telehealth solution and their “Collaboration and Communication” solution, which is centered around HIPAA-compliant videoconferencing for purposes such as staff meetings, trainings, and care conferences.

BrightLife also is open to doing a first, sample field trip at no cost to interested organizations that have more than 10 communities, and to working out arrangements with smaller companies to allow them to also experience one of the tours.

As for how providers are thinking about the return on investment for virtual field trips, both Kirby Pines and Senior Star emphasized that it’s a competitive differentiator and sales tool.

“It certainly sets us apart in the marketplace,” said Kirby Pines’ Grimes. “We’re the only community in Tennessee that has it.”

Kirby Pines also invites its “Discovery Club” members to the virtual field trips. Club members do not live at Kirby Pines but can participate in events there. The more often that the life plan community can bring these people on campus, the more likely it becomes that they sign a contract and move in, Grimes said.

“It’s a great way to differentiate,” said Senior Star’s Shirley. “One person, when they’re looking for senior living, can visit five to ten communities. You’ve got to stand apart. This is a great program to allow for that.”

If the virtual field trips increase resident satisfaction, that also could lead them to refer more prospective customers, Shirley pointed out.

For Silldorff, making sure that residents indeed are satisfied with the field trips is paramount. BrightLife solicits input from residents about what technologies create the most successful experiences, and also takes suggestions for future destinations.

These suggestions have led to some of the most engaging virtual field trips, such as one that involved speaking with a NASA astronaut, Silldorff said.

“The biggest finding, and it’s something that I will make sure we stay true to, is listening to the voice of the resident,” he said. “Hands-down the best part is the residents asking questions, getting into discussions with the presenters. It’s blown me away, how much they recall and know, how curious they are, and how much they want to learn.”
Written by Tim Mullaney
Photo Credit: Channel Islands Live, Bill Kendig, National Park Service

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