Vincentian Invests in Smart Tech to Serve Middle Market, Meet Resident Expectations

When leaders with non-profit Vincentian Collaborative System began conceiving a new 91-unit independent living community, they did the math on smart tech and realized that sooner is better.

The community Terrace Place, which opened April 1 in the Pittsburgh suburb of North Hills, is a $19-million project, with a smart technology offering that cost between $90,000 and $100,000 to implement. Powered by the smart voice assistant Amazon Alexa and using the senior-centric K4Community platform from Raleigh, North Carolina-based K4Connect, the system at Terrace Place focuses on smart technology around health and wellness and day-to-day living.

Yet if Pittsburgh-based Vincentian  opened the community without smart tech and had to retrofit it a decade or more from now, the price tag could potentially skyrocket as much as five times the ground-up cost, president and CEO Nick Vizzoca says.

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Vincentian joins a growing list of senior living providers that are rolling out smart technology, and Vizzoca laid out the company’s strategy in the latest episode of Senior Housing News’ Transform podcast, sponsored by PointClickCare. Highlights of the interview are below, edited for length and clarity. Subscribe to Transform via Apple Podcasts, SoundCloud, or Google Play to hear the complete episode.

Give listeners a sense of why you have been so proactive to go after smart tech.

The most important thing for us is to make that smart technology accessible to everybody. Our mission is obviously to take care of those who cannot take care of themselves, but more importantly, we feel as though there is a missing connection with the middle market. When you think of the everyman, the working man or woman, there are three levels. There are the folks who can’t afford to be in that nursing home or that continuing care community. They have the low income and that affordable housing option. Then you have people who are very well off and can afford the higher end, the opulent CCRCs (continuing care retirement community).

And then there is that big middle market that no one is focusing on and is, I think, forgotten. So how do you bring those two together? How do you bring that affordability and that higher level together and offer a product that is very comprehensive and doesn’t short-change or cut corners on smart technology and the availability of it to everybody?

I think that that boomer generation that is coming is much more comfortable with the smart technology than the folks who are in their 80s and 90s now. So we feel that is important to start that now, so that in 10 or 15 years, it becomes the norm, and not an add-on or the exception.

You’re saying you’re starting that “now,” but this is 2019, and you ran your first pilot in 2008, correct?

We did. … We just ran a pilot a little over a year ago with K4Connect and some of the smart technology we’re doing in our development Terrace Place.

We’re going to roll out smart technology in Terrace Place, and it’s going to be a very connected community. Ninety-one apartment units. It’s everything from smart home automation to smart health and wellness. We know that social isolation is a big problem among the senior population, so how do we connect them not only to themselves in that community, but also to the outside world, and their children and friends?

There are a lot of reasons why a senior housing community might jump into smart tech. And there are certainly a lot of reasons why they might be reticent to do so. … What were the biggest reasons, if you can give a top tier, that Vincentian moved into smart tech?

I think the main reason of what we were hearing is that … it’s an expectation. People now, the 55- and 60-year-old that has gone through the workforce in the last several years, expects and understands that IT and that technology. So it’s not only an expectation — they demand it. That’s one of the first questions they ask us. ‘Do you have wi-fi in the building?’ ‘Will you be able to have smart technology?’ ‘Can I bring my Alexa?’ ‘Can I bring my Google (Home)?’ It’s an expectation. It’s a demand.

So why retrofit it and have it be an afterthought when you build it in, you have it in there today, and 10, 15, 20 years from now you allow our infrastructure to adapt to the changes that we know are going to happen. Come on — you buy an iPhone today, or a tablet, and in six months the new one comes out. We don’t want something that is going to be obsolete in a year. We want to be able to grow with the technology.

That’s the biggest thing, but when you look at the health and wellness, I think a lot of physicians — with accountable care and health insurances and providers — you want to keep people healthy, and you want to know that they are doing everything that they can to keep themselves healthy. So how do you bring that component?

So there is that demand from the consumer, but there is also that expectation and demand from health insurance companies saying, ‘If one of my customers comes into your community, how do we work together to ensure that their health and wellness is as good as it can be, and that we can keep in contact with them?’

So I think it’s coming from several angles. And when we thought about that, we said, ‘How do we work with a company that can put together a product that’s affordable, streamlined and easy to use?’

The third one is that engagement, that communication, that socialization amongst those seniors. Because more and more, you can open a newspaper, a magazine article, a podcast, and you’ll hear the term ‘social isolation’ over and over and over again. We see it, especially when you have folks who come in as a single resident into our apartments. They don’t know anybody and they isolate themselves. Or in many cases a spouse or partner passes away while they’re living there and now they’re left out on this island.

So to have this smart technology to put a community calendar up, to have different events and the engagement, allowing people to have a better sense of purpose and allow them to age-in-place and really let them know that, ‘This is just the next chapter of your life. You’re not coming to a senior community to be put out to pasture. No. You’re coming to write the next chapter, and we’re going to help you do that.’ So the communication, the engagement, and the spirit of living — that’s what’s next.

That’s great. I want to give listeners a sense of how you might get started — let’s start with cost. You said, ‘Why have it be an afterthought and then have to retrofit?’ And that’s a really key piece of this. You gave me some numbers for Terrace Place. You said it’s a $19 million project, correct?

Correct.

And the cost of implementing the smart tech is $90,000 to $100,000.

That’s right.

What would the cost be for implementing the same smart tech on Terrace Place in five to 10 years if you didn’t put it in now at the outset?

Well, it’s not only the cost but the disruption. Because then you’re going to have to go behind walls and above ceilings. The disruption to those residents, I don’t think you can put an actual cost to that. And being able to wire and to bluetooth everything to a thermostat or to lighting — that $90,000 can quickly, in terms of dollars, get to three, four, five times as much.

So you can be talking about half a million or more depending on how that structure is built. Is it a wood structure? Is it a steel structure? Is it a poured concrete? And sometimes if it’s a poured concrete, it’s prohibitive. You can’t even do it. And poured concrete, now you’re going through walls and you need a whole new technology to be powerful enough to go through that.

So I think that when you’re building something like this, the tech folks, the IT, those companies should be at the table from Day 1. So for us, the $90,000 to $100,000 initially and then the ongoing cost, we don’t pass that on to the residents. That’s built into your rent. And whether you take it or not, it’s there and it’s available for you. But I can assure you that 100% of these folks are going to use it, they’re going to want it.

Another thing to remember is that if we’re going to go 10 years from now and we’re now going to implement it, who knows: the cost could even be higher than half a million. It could be a million. Who’s going to pay for that? It’s going to have to be passed on to the resident.

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