How 2018 Became a Landmark Year for Big Tech’s Pursuit of Senior Living Dollars

Tech giants are waging a massive smart tech arms race, and seniors are a prime target.

This was never more true than in 2018, as Amazon (Nasdaq: AMZN), Best Buy (NYSE: BBY), Google (Nasdaq: GOOGL) and others made move after move to capture the smart tech senior dollar. Their respective yet similar strategies revolve around creating and delivering smart technology that is designed specifically for seniors, and expanding their brands to reach into the massive health care space, much of which impacts older adults.

This work is already impacting seniors and senior living. In 2018, Amazon, Apple and Google advanced their efforts to use smart technology to turn everyday items — including bathroom mirrors — into health monitoring devices. Amazon and Best Buy made high-profile acquisitions this year of companies that expand their ability to deliver health services or senior-centric smart tech. Senior living communities nationwide began their journeys into smart homes through systems and tech such as Amazon Echo, Google Home and Samsung SmartThings Hub.


And always, there was Amazon, making headlines seemingly every week of 2018 with stabs into the senior market, from a vague reveal of what is already a three-year collaboration with AARP to concrete moves like purchasing PillPack or selling software for mining medical records.

As senior living operators embark on their smart tech journeys, they will be bombarded with opportunities to partner with and purchase from tech giants. To succeed, they must understand both the goals of these companies and what their residents most need from them.

To do that, they must be able to stand back and see the big picture painted by an ongoing onslaught of Big Tech business moves, ones that in 2018 seemingly changed this landscape by the hour.


Best Buy’s big bet

The past year saw tech leaders execute a flurry of activity in the health care space aimed at the senior market. While Amazon and Google are among the leaders here, Best Buy turned itself into a power player in one fell swoop.

In August of 2018, Best Buy spent $800 million to acquire GreatCall, the San Diego-based tech company that makes senior-friendly products, such as the Jitterbug smartphones and medical alert devices. GreatCall’s portfolio includes senior-focused passive remote monitoring systems collected in its 2016 acquisition of Healthsense.

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GreatCall’s purchase of Healthsense gave it an expanded ability to monitor a senior’s activities of daily living, including eating, sleeping and moving. Best Buy’s purchase of GreatCall, whose products it was already selling in its stores, does more than just subsume a competitor — it gives the retailer access to GreatCall’s business-to-business (B2B) relationships, specifically in independent living and assisted living, thus letting Best Buy tap into seniors on a community-wide scale rather than going consumer by consumer.

“More and more (companies) are realizing that a significant part of their business plan has to be focused on the aging population,” John Hopper, chief investment officer at Chicago-based specialty investment bank Ziegler, told SHN in October 2017. “I think it’s great that somebody like Best Buy is looking at that.”

Best Buy’s value for senior living includes its tech support team Geek Squad, which lets it efficiently scale GreatCall’s existing operations. Senior living customers can take advantage of Geek Squad for device installation and ongoing tech support. Best Buy, which did not return multiple attempts for comment, has more than 20,000 Geek Squad agents nationwide.

Amazon’s health care deep dive

Amazon’s journey into health care and senior smart tech has been a sight to behold. In July of 2017, the company launched its own version of Geek Squad called Amazon Experts, a team of smart home service providers that Amazon touts as “your technology-savvy best friend.”

Another intriguing move came in August of 2017 when Amazon hired Christine Henningsgaard, then the COO of tech-enabled home-care company Hometeam, for a yet-undisclosed position.

The tech titan has moved at light speed in 2018, attacking the health care and senior sectors with strategic gusto. Among Amazon’s 2018 smart tech highlights pertinent to senior living and senior care:

  • JANUARY: Amazon invites hospital executives to its Seattle headquarters to discuss B2B sales of durable medical equipment.
  • MARCH: Amazon’s VP of special projects Babak Parviz reveals at a health care event that Amazon and AARP have been in talks since 2015, “building (something that) relates to what happens to older people.”
  • APRIL: Bloomberg reports that Amazon is working on “an ambitious, top-secret plan” to create a caregiving robot, codenamed “Vesta” after the Roman goddess of the hearth and home.
  • APRIL: CNBC breaks the news that Parviz and an Amazon team joined its consultant Bill Thomas — of the Minka “MAGIC” house fame — for a multi-city bus tour in the spring of 2016 to learn more about aging innovation.
  • JUNE: Amazon grabs headlines with its purchase for $1 billion of online pharmacy PillPack.
  • NOVEMBER: Wall Street Journal reports that Amazon has started selling software that doctors and hospitals can use to mine patient medical records in hopes of improving treatment and cutting costs.

All of these moves and more show just how serious Amazon is about serving seniors. There are some altruistic motives at play — Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos commented in early 2018 about the desire for “reducing health care’s burden on the economy,” while Parviz noted in March the company’s desire to work with the AARP to serve “the older population,” which he said has “a lot of issues and unmet needs.”

Yet this is also very much a case where the business opportunity of serving seniors is too great to ignore. Look at Amazon Prime, for instance. In its Q4 earnings call, Amazon cited its signature membership program as a core priority for 2018. Prime is a huge moneymaker, yet based on age groups, Amazon’s biggest possible area for Prime expansion is with people 55 and above.

For a company accustomed to domination, seniors are an obvious market to pursue in full force.

What senior living must do to succeed — and protect itself

Along with purchases and partnerships, part of Big Tech’s strategy in senior living is to develop smart household devices that measure health data. Companies made news in 2018 with a number of these product innovations, ones that are anywhere from a filed patent to a product on the shelf.

Just one example: In September, Apple announced a smartwatch that monitors heart health, with the Food and Drug Administration approving the watch as a tool to measure the wearer’s electrocardiogram and detect arrythmia.

The watch from Apple does not necessarily tie into senior living, but it is the type of personal smart technology that a resident might own and use on their own, especially as baby boomers age into senior living. As David Frumkin of CDW-Healthcare notes, because arrhythmia is a key predictor of strokes, the Apple watch — and eventually, others like it — provides valuable data.

“That’s where the money is in IoT (Internet of Things) in smart living,” Frumkin says. “The lights are nice to have, but it’s the ability to influence how my health is going on a passive basis that is immense and will truly move the needle for the wellbeing of seniors.”

This sort kind of pervasive, passive monitoring and data collection around seniors raises another crucial question for senior living providers to take into consideration. Smart technology is a two-way street. Yes, the user — in this case, both the resident and the senior community — is getting something they need and want, but the tech company is too: data.

Senior living providers, therefore, must be vigilant in asking themselves what these Big Tech companies want from their residents. Both Google and Amazon are transparent in their mission to collect and analyze user data in order to push to these users targeted advertising and dictate their purchasing habits. Google’s privacy policy notes its work in analyzing user data to help advertisers tailor ads, while Amazon has an interest in pushing product sales through Amazon Prime.

Knowledge of each tech company’s goals is an aspect that senior living providers need to examine and understand clearly before proceeding — something Matt Haywood, CEO of Atlanta-based senior living technology company Tazergy Inc., believes happens far too infrequently.

“I think a very low percentage are asking that question,” Haywood says. “A very low percentage.”

This article draws from the new report, “The Senior Living Smart Home Revolution.” Click here to access the complete report, which digs deep into the smart home innovations, and innovators, changing senior living in 2019 and beyond.

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