Smart Home Technology Becomes a Must-Have in Senior Living

From voice-activated technologies like Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home, to sensors that can track movement, to smart lights and thermostats, to wearable devices that monitor health indicators, the pieces are now in place to create comprehensive “smart home” environments in senior living — and doing so is a must, if companies want to be well-positioned for the future.

Pulling together these disparate technologies into a single enterprise-level platform will not be easy, but it’s a challenge that providers are taking on in larger numbers, according to panelists who spoke last week at the Senior Housing News Summit in Los Angeles.

“In the top 100 providers in senior living right now, of those, I’ve probably had a conversation about smart apartments with nearly 80% of them,” said Ginna Baik, strategic business development manager for senior care at CDW-Healthcare (pictured above).

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Some providers are still in the ideation phase, but others are implementing prototype smart apartments or going even further, she said. One provider on the East Coast is looking to implement them across an entire 50-community portfolio.

Indeed, smart home environments have gone from being a “really cool, interesting idea” to being the wave of the future, Baik said.

A new phase

Smart technologies have now proven that they work and are engaging, creating this new sense of urgency in figuring out how to best deploy them in senior living and care, said Dr. David Rhew, chief medical officer and VP and GM of enterprise healthcare at global tech giant Samsung.

“We see the next frontier as being around implementation and making it seamless for the end user,” he said.

To that end, Samsung and CDW have partnered with the city of Louisville to create the Thrive Innovation Center, which opened its doors last year. Visitors to the Center can see how smart apartments can be implemented by walking through environments such as a kitchen, bathroom and bedroom that are equipped with sensors and other devices.

David Rhew

“Then we realized, we need to be able to create an enterprise platform, that allows us to look across multiple different units to see how technology can be deployed, because it’s not just about one unit but about managing a group of units and individuals,” Rhew said.

This raises a particular challenge — namely, how to balance standardization with personalization in smart home deployments.

“We have to understand that our job is to create platforms,” said Kari Olson, chief innovation and technology officer at Front Porch, a not-for-profit that operates 10 full-service retirement communities in California and two adult living communities, in Louisiana and Florida. “Not everyone is going to use all IOT [devices] — maybe some will use voice but some want to use a tablet or television … When we talk about enterprise, it’s not just on the back-end so that we can manage it, it’s about creating whole new platforms so people can live the way they want, using multiple modalities.”

In their effort to make these multiple options available, providers will need to find the right balance in how many pieces of technology are integrated into a unit. For instance, it may be wise to offer voice-activated tech like Alexa or Google Home but also more tablet-based technologies for seniors with hearing- or speech-related conditions, Baik said.

“What’s just enough to have a baseline, so that every apartment has these technologies, and then how do you personalize them to the residents?” she said. “Where we standardize everything is where we get into trouble.”

Gleaning resident input is therefore crucial in efforts to roll out smart home tech. Having a resident technology committee is a great idea, Baik said. In the case of Front Porch, residents played a key role in a program to introduce Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant.

Kari Olson

Before that pilot began at the Carlsbad By The Sea community in Carlsbad, California, Front Porch convened a resident focus group to explore their needs and expectations. After initial success, the pilot expanded into a second phase, in which technology was added to the Amazon Echo devices so that residents could also control thermostats, lights and other environmental features with their voices.

After again surveying participants, Front Porch found that 82% said that adding a smart device made using Alexa better, said Olson. Still, Front Porch is only configuring Alexa-driven smart apartments at resident request.

“In the communities where we started our Alexa pilots, we’ve reached full adoption — that does not mean 100%,” said Olson. “There’s about 20% who don’t want it configured … As a provider, we need to provide a platform with multiple ways to engage, not just one.”

What the future holds

While smart home technology has proven itself, there is still room for improvement and plenty of lessons to learn in how to implement it in senior living, Rhew noted.

Some of these improvements will come from the evolution of the smart devices and the infrastructure that supports them, such as the move to 5G networks. Devices are becoming more senior-friendly, as well; for instance, tablets can learn how to adapt to an older adult with a hand tremor, or who touches the screen with more forcefulness than usual, Rhew said.

And from the standpoint of enterprise users, back-end data collection and display should get better. For example, information gathered from disparate technologies needs to be collected in one place and then displayed in a coherent manner, so that senior living providers can better manage the overall platform and glean better insights.

Security is another area that needs to be enhanced, Baik said. Some commonly used smart technologies are not compliant with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), she noted, although there are third-party companies that offer wrap-around solutions to make some of these products HIPAA-compliant.

While there are real risks in deploying smart homes or units, it is just as risky from a business perspective to sit on the sidelines and wait for the next generation of tech, in Baik’s opinion. These slow-moving providers will be ceding too much ground to the competition and are likely to quickly fall out of favor with increasingly tech-savvy senior living consumers.

“You can’t wait five years from now,” Baik said. “You have to figure this out today.”

Written by Tim Mullaney

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