SHN+ Report: The Senior Living Smart Home Revolution

Key Takeaways:

  • Smart home technology will eventually be the foundation of senior living’s offering
  • Smart tech can enhance nearly every physical object in a senior living unit, including beds, lights, thermostat, stove, fridge, locks, doorbells
  • Amazon, Best Buy, Google and other tech giants are going big on smart tech for seniors
  • Senior living can use smart tech to enhance resident lifestyle, safety and health
  • A smart home in senior living can assist caregivers and staff, and even become a caregiver itself

The worst mistake a senior living operator can make with smart technology is believing that it is merely a part of senior living. Smart tech is not a part of senior living. It is not an add-on, a feature or an amenity.

Instead, smart tech has the potential to become the foundation for every aspect of senior living’s value proposition and mission, with operators building fully smart units and communities. This isn’t something that providers must consider at “some point in the future,” or even “in the next decade.” They must consider it now.

“If operators aren’t listening to my age demographic — 45 to 55 — they are missing an opportunity to capitalize 10, 15, 20 years from now, and they are really short-sighted in thinking of today and not thinking of what comes next to sustain their operations for years to come,” says Nick Vizzoca, president and CEO of Pittsburgh-based Vincentian Collaborative System, which operates three senior communities in the Pittsburgh area, two of which are continuing care retirement communities (CCRC).

Vizzoca is one of several senior housing operators interviewed for this report who are going all in on smart tech. Both the concept and the individual devices may seem intimidating, but in reality, smart technology is simple: it is the transformation of physical objects into “thinking” ones that can operate some or all functions without human interaction.

The most exciting technologies, and the ones this report covers most, use artificial intelligence to interact with the world around them, with the data collected at each interaction helping predict the needs for the next interaction.

For a consumer base — seniors — that often requires care from a person who must stay literally one step ahead of them, predictive smart technologies provide a powerful path to health, wellness and happiness.

Despite a lag behind younger generations, today’s senior is growing increasingly comfortable with this technology. Pew Research Center shows that the percentage of people 65 and up who own smartphones quadrupled from 2011 to 2016, while the percentage of 65+ adults using the internet grew five times from 2000 to 2016.

Seniors still have their concerns about smart technology. Some face physical barriers, such as poor vision or hand tremors. Some are worried about security. Some just don’t see the need at all. Tech companies are responding by building technology made for seniors.

These companies have great motivation to do so. While overall usage of social media, the internet and smart technology have plateaued in the United States in the past two years, seniors remain far from market saturation, giving Big Tech room for growth. As boomers and then Generation X ages into senior living, the use of smart tech by seniors will continue to rise.

Senior living operators cognizant of this trend are already planning for a future they can’t yet see but know is coming. When Vizzoca and his team at Vincentian conduct focus groups to plan new communities, they still talk to today’s seniors, but they also bring in people in their 40s and 50s and ask them what they want from senior housing in 20 or so years.

The answer invariably includes smart tech — the same kind of tech these people use every day.

“That’s what operators need to do: listen to that generation that’s coming, the Gen-Xers,” Vizzoca says. “That’s who you should build for.”

These efforts will also benefit the boomers. After all, the average independent living (IL) resident is in her 80s, so by the time boomers become the majority of the IL population in 2026, Americans will view smart tech as a fact of daily life — not just as one-off devices but as fully smart environments, better known as smart homes.

On both a macro and micro scale, 2017 was a landmark year for this tech. The total number of smart environments in North America rose to 30 million, with an expected surge by 2021 to 73 million. That would be 55% of all households in the United States and Canada right around the time that the boomers are coming to dominate IL.

The biggest housing developer in the U.S. is also embracing the smart home trend. In June 2017, Miami-based homebuilder Lennar Corporation made history with the first full home environments to receive Wi-Fi certification from the Wi-Fi Alliance, a nonprofit that serves as the stamp of approval of smart devices in the U.S. Lennar now plans to go fully Wi-Fi Certified with its entire portfolio moving forward.

They’ll have a lot to work with. The 2018 Global Smart Home Forecast from Strategy Analytics lists the entire smart home market at $93 billion in 2018, with potential growth to $143 billion in 2023. By that time, 14% of houses worldwide are expected to have at least one type of smart system. The cycle will continue: the more prevalent the tech, the more demand from those who don’t yet have it. Already today, nearly 80% of home buyers express an interest in smart technology.

“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,” Ginna Baik, strategic business development manager for senior care at CDW-Healthcare, said in September as a panelist at the Senior Housing News Summit in Los Angeles.

The Amazon Echo Dot, pictured here, is a voice-enabled smart speaker, powered by the voice assistant Alexa. Syncing smart speakers to smart devices, and smart devices to each other, is how a living environment goes from containing smart tech to being a smart home. Senior living communities are increasingly turning to voice-enabled smart technology to enhance the lives of residents and staff.

Those conversations are being fueled in two directions: residents are asking for it and tech companies are pushing it. AARP tracks what it calls the “Longevity Economy,” which represents all economic activity serving Americans over the age of 50, including both their direct purchases and the economic activity generated by that spending. In 2015, that number was $7.6 trillion.

AARP counts 111 million Americans in that population, nearly all of whom are baby boomers, since the youngest boomers turned 54 in 2018. They are a massive, spend-happy demographic and an attractive market to the world’s tech giants.

The giants have noticed. Amazon, Apple, Best Buy, Facebook, Google, Home Depot and Samsung are all making plays to deliver smart technology to seniors. They are doing so in part because of the population boom aging into senior living, and in part because despite their growing interest, seniors remain the least tapped age demographic for smart technology — and hence a promising growth area for these companies.

Senior living operators already on the smart tech train in 2018 believe this technology will help their communities attract younger staff, limit staff turnover and entice future residents. A younger population that can age in place longer and use smart tech to reduce unnecessary movement and avoid hospitalization — while also living more fulfilled lives — is an opportunity senior living cannot afford to lose.

The smart senior living revolution is not some far-flung fantasy. It is here, today, and the time is now to get on board.

The tech giants make their move: How Amazon, Best Buy, Google and others are seeking the senior dollar

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

Amazon, Best Buy, Google and others are competing for the smart tech senior dollar. Their strategy revolves 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 seniors.

All of this work will impact senior living. And as operators embark on their smart tech journey, 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 these companies.

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 are seemingly changing this landscape by the hour.

Best Buy’s big bet

The past year alone has seen tech leaders execute a flurry of activity in the health care space aimed at the senior market. Amazon and Google are among the leaders here, while 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.

Best Buy’s support team Geek Squad is a key differentiator in its ability to deliver senior-friendly tech, giving it the infrastructure necessary to scale in senior living and provide on-site installation and support around senior living smart home technology.
Source: Geek Squad Facebook

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.

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, Ziegler

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.

Along with its purchases and partnerships, Amazon has also announced product innovations, including ones that are powered by smart technology and that senior living could connect to smart homes.

Smart product innovations from Amazon, Google, Apple

Part of Big Tech’s strategy in smart senior living is to develop smart household devices that measure health. Intriguing examples, some of which are in development, include:

  • A smartphone camera that uses facial analysis capabilities to detect heart rate
  • A voice recognition system that determines a person’s physical and emotional wellbeing
  • A bathroom mirror powered by optical sensors that would collect data on a person’s cardiovascular functions
  • Though not tied directly to senior living, Apple announced in September 2018 health-based smartwatch monitors heart health. The Food and Drug Administration has approved the watch as a tool to measure the wearer’s electrocardiogram and detect arrhythmia.

As David Frumkin of CDW-Healthcare notes, because arrhythmia is a key predictor of strokes, the Apple watch provides valuable data.

“That’s where the money is in IoT 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.”

All of these moves and more show just how serious Big Tech 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.

Building a smart home strategy into your business

With all of the money, technology, gossip and guesswork floating throughout the industry about smart homes, operators might feel concern about finding the best approach to pursuing smart senior living, perhaps even worrying that the timing will take too long.

They need only heed the lessons of CCRC operator Masonic Villages, which in 2017 successfully designed a smart home prototype in just two months.

In late 2016, while Masonic was designing 72 IL cottages in their corporate hometown of Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, Chief Environmental and Facilities Officer Patrick Sampsell began wondering about the possibility of incorporating elements that would address two game-changers at play in housing.

We said: Let’s kind of go long on this and address the idea of aging in place using technology, not just with the items of convenience.

Patrick Sampsell, Chief Environmental and Facilities Officer, Masonic Villages

First were the smart home trends that are engulfing all-ages, market-rate housing. Second was the increased emphasis in senior living toward aging in place. Recognizing that smart tech could help deliver an aging-in-place lifestyle to residents, Masonic added “convenience” smart devices in a few apartments on their Elizabethtown campus.

The pilot proved successful, and in January 2017, two months out from their completion date of the 72 cottages, Sampsell and the Masonic team re-designed one unit on the fly into a fully integrated smart home, which they are calling “IQ Homes.” The IQ Homes will be Masonic’s template across its entire portfolio going forward, which consists of five communities in Pennsylvania.

They have one such unit now, will add 24 IQ townhomes and 10 IQ cottages in June 2019 followed by 24 more IQ townhomes in January 2020. The Elizabethtown page on the Masonic website highlights the smart technology offering, noting that “new options will be continuously tested, and residents can pick and choose which features to install in their home.”

“We said: Let’s kind of go long on this and address the idea of aging in place using technology, not just with the items of convenience,” Sampsell says.

Here are the top five areas to consider when getting started. 

Whether through new builds or retrofitting, Masonic Villages is in the process of transforming its entire portfolio into smart homes, with its IQ Homes design. Residents can control the smart technology in these homes in part through tablets, such as the one seen here. Photo courtesy of Masonic Villages

Smart home strategy #1: Wi-Fi infrastructure

One of the main problems plaguing smart technology implementation in senior living is also arguably the technology’s most basic component: Wi-Fi. In too many communities, the system driving the future of technology is still stuck in the past.

Tazergy serves 125 to 150 communities across the U.S., including ones from Benchmark Senior Living and Sunrise Senior Living. One of Haywood’s first tasks with a new client is to check and see if the infrastructure is capable of handling the fastest possible internet speeds available today.

“If the answer is no, then you know you’re going to have an infrastructure problem soon,” Haywood says.

Haywood estimates the cost of fully tested, enterprise-grade Wi-Fi infrastructure at $700 to $1,500 per access point. Operators moving to smart tech need to consider how they will scale top speed and connectivity throughout their community.

“Part of what people are struggling with in smart apartments is that (they) take consumer devices and use them for a large-scale community,” Baik says. “Some (providers) think, if we make it smart, there’s a cool factor to it. But the reality is that when you try to manage all of those smart devices, it becomes a stumbling block to actually being sustainable.”

In Issaquah, Washington, The Lofts at Timber Ridge offers senior living smart homes via three types of devices: ones pertinent to senior needs, ones that deliver ROI and ones that offer “the ‘wow’ aspect.” Photo courtesy of Timber Ridge at Talus

Smart home strategy #2: Know what objects to make smart

When LCS Development — an LCS company — of Des Moines, Iowa, set out to build a smart home for seniors, it sought three types of smart devices: ones pertinent to the needs of seniors, ones that could deliver return on investment, and ones with what design manager Matthew Butler calls “the ‘wow’ aspect.”

This was the genesis for the new Lofts at Timber Ridge, a life plan community in Issaquah, Washington, that Life Care Services and the Timber Ridge staff markets as “Where smart meets cool.” Their goal was to employ a handful of smart items for residents; they settled on video doorbells, smart thermostats, Samsung’s smart appliance package, smart TVs and lights.

“From an ease of life standpoint, the smart technology seems like something that is going to stay around,” Butler says. “It’s adapting very quickly. (And) it is something that is going to continually adapt and modify and make lives better for seniors.”

One of the key elements to a smart home are the sensors, which hypothetically can be embedded in any physical object in a senior living apartment. A 2016 Deloitte study showed that seniors (defined as born between 1900 and 1945) and boomers were more likely than younger groups to use sensors for a range of needs, including location tracking, fall detection and chronic disease monitoring.

Masonic’s IQ Homes pilot included sensors that track refrigerator usage and resident movement, along with smart scales that capture a resident’s weight data. The goal at Masonic is to connect all resident home health IoT data to a dashboard that Masonic’s home health team can monitor in order to detect changes in resident behavior and health.

Without providing concrete figures, Sampsell notes that Masonic is able to increase prices on their IQ Homes due to both the technological and physical enhancements.

“One of the things that surprised us a little bit is just how much the incoming generation of residents is interested in this technology and is willing to use it,” he says. “(They are) very interested and willing to pay.”

Smart home strategy #3: The challenges of scale

In Rockville, Maryland, the Ingleside family of life plan communities is bringing voice-enabled smart technology to their residents, starting with Amazon’s Alexa. Yet Dusanka Delovska-Trajkova, the organization’s chief information officer, is careful to use the term “voice recognition” rather than “Alexa,” because she wants to be open to all tech providers in order to maintain flexibility for both organizational need and resident demand.

Unfortunately, Ingleside and other providers engaging in senior living’s standard pursuit of personalization for residents can open themselves to two problems in smart tech.

First, there is management of the devices. Managing one smart device is easy. Managing one smart apartment, or even a smart house, is too. But managing a full smart community of 100 to 200 individual users is a dynamic challenge, and an even more troubling one if the users are using products from a range of companies.

Providers attempting to do so can face massive synchronization and management challenges, since each company has an app and a system tied to it — most notably Amazon Echo, Google Home, Samsung SmartThings Hub and Apple HomeKit. Scaling that synchronization across 100+ units can cause a massive strain on a provider’s IT department — if the tech is ready to be scaled at all.

“Part of what people are struggling with in smart apartments is that it’s not enterprise-ready,” Baik told Senior Housing News. “A lot of organizations focus on consumer devices, and then they take those devices and try to use them for a large-scale community. … It’s a little different trying to scale a ‘unique personal experience’ to 100 residents.”

What the smart bathroom of the future might include

Top-of-the-line Wi-Fi infrastructure is essential for smart homes, not just for today’s tech but, crucially, tomorrow’s. In March of 2018, AI-fueled interior design company Digital Bridge surveyed 1,100 customers and collected their top 10 bathroom innovations they want in the next decade.

The list can give senior living providers and example of where smart homes might be headed, and what residents might soon demand.

  1. A face recognition system that automatically adjusts water temperature and pressure to your personalized settings
  2. A hovering drone mirror that allows you to style the back of your hair with ease
  3. An in-shower voice recognition that allows you to add shampoo, toothpaste and other essentials to your shopping list when they are running low
  4. An augmented reality simulator that shows how a hairstyle could look on your head and provides step-by-step instructions on how to achieve it
  5. A pep-talking mirror that gives you advice on your outfits based on a link to your personal calendar
  6. Three taps – one for hot, cold and “just right”
  7. A dressing machine that chooses your outfit and dresses you
  8. A full body air-dryer
  9. A height-adjustable sink, toilet and mirror that moves up and down depending on who is using them
  10. An ambient display that allows you to make a cup of coffee and answer the doorbell from the shower

Source: Digital Bridge, March 2018

The K4Connect dashboard is designed specifically for use in senior living.

Smart home strategy #4: A senior-centric resident hub

Despite both statistical and anecdotal evidence, seniors can still struggle with smart tech. The Pew data shows 42% of people 65 and up using smartphones in 2016, yet that is somewhat misleading because only 17% over the age of 80 do — the same age that most residents move into independent living.

The same Pew poll showed that only 26% of people 65+ were “very” confident using smartphones — that is significant because the smartphone is the most widely owned piece of consumer smart technology. Since a smart home uses multiple pieces of smart tech, providers must find a management tool that makes tech use easier for seniors.

For its system, Masonic partnered with K4Connect, a technology company based in Raleigh, North Carolina, that is leading the movement to connect sensors with smart technology. K4 offers a single system, called K4Community, that seniors can use to manage all of their smart home technologies. Residents can access the system via applications on their smartphone or tablet, thus maximizing their comfort levels.

In turn, staff can access K4Community via dashboards that provide a number of content creation and analytic capabilities.

Ingleside chose a different platform but for similar reasons. They worked for two years to build a portal and then surveyed residents only to find that 30% could not use what they made — typically due to challenges of vision, dexterity and comfort.

In response, Ingleside turned to North Carolina-based senior living website builder Senior Portal to design a resident dashboard and product that would meet the needs of all residents.

“I think giving people the technology that is easily accessible by voice is extremely important,” says Delovska-Trajkova of Ingleside. “We were very surprised by how fast people adapted to voice technology with Alexa.”

Amazon is surprised too. Sales of Alexa in 2017 so far exceeded the company’s projections that the normally subdued Bezos expressed shock.

“We don’t see positive surprises of this magnitude very often — expect us to double down,” he said in a statement with the company’s 2017 Q4 earnings report. Three quarters later, in October 2018, Amazon’s earnings report noted that Alexa-compatible smart home devices quintupled from the year before, ballooning to 20,000 devices from more than 3,500 brands.

K4Connect growing in popularity

Masonic has found success with K4Connect, as has Vincentian, which also uses the K4Community platform. K4’s other customers include:

  • The Avamere Family of Companies Wilsonville, Oregon
  • Eskaton Senior Care & Services Carmichael, California
  • Spring Arbor Senior Living Communities of HHHunt North Carolina and Virginia
  • Kisco Senior Living Carlsbad, California
  • Westminster Canterbury Richmond Richmond, Virginia
  • Williamsburg Landing Williamsburg, Virginia

The Amazon Experience Centers from Lennar Corporation and Amazon include the Amazon Dash Button, which can automate the re-ordering of common household items. Source: Amazon household Dash Buttons

Smart home strategy #5: Build for the future today, because retrofitting is tough

Vizzoca has seen the highs and lows of smart home retrofitting. Vincentian ran its K4 pilot at its IL community Vinentian Villa, built in 2008. To run the pilot, K4 retrofitted “some simple things” in the pilot units, Vizzoca says — the thermostat and some of the lighting, while adding a Wi-Fi hotspot.

“It was very easy to do,” he says.

Conversely, if he tried to do a full retrofit of every unit in that community, “we’re talking a nice chunk of money — hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

But new build from the ground up changes the math. Vincentian’s newest project, Terrace Place at Vincentian, is a 91-unit IL community set to open in spring of 2019. The cost of the smart home technology for the $19 million-project runs $90,000 to $100,000.

“So it’s very small in the grand scheme of things in a project like that,” he says. “The retrofit, there are ways to make it work, but it won’t look as sleek and clean without tearing down walls.”

In other words, whether senior living operators want to pay for smart tech now or pay later, the cost is coming. Vizzoca’s plan is to be proactive.

“(Smart technology is) going to be built into the DNA of any new construction coming,” Vizzoca says. “It’s not going to be a discussion of ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ … I think it’s a line item. It’s going to be what defines them. And I think as a consumer, they’re not even going to ask, ‘Do you have smart technology?’ They’re going to assume it will be there.”

How senior living smart homes enhance a resident’s life

Any conversation about smart technology returns at some point to the all-too-common fear of automation, and the impact it might have on jobs. A 2017 Pew study showed that 72% of Americans are worried about “a future where robots and computers can do many human jobs.”

But when Bob Hillis looks at smart senior living, he does not see robots taking over jobs. He sees a world where buildings themselves become additional caregivers.

Hillis is CEO of senior solutions company Direct Supply, and at the 2017 National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care (NIC) Conference he spoke about the role that smart technology can have in the industry’s staffing crisis.

“The biggest challenge we’re going to have in this industry over the next 20 years — we’re not going to be able to get enough caregivers at the right price to do the jobs that we have to do,” Hillis said in his NIC speech. “So we need something that is smarter, something that can care for our people seven by 24, and that’s going to be a smart building.”

In his presentation, he revealed the four “mega-trends” that senior living can use to create caregiving buildings. Taken individually, they aren’t mind-blowing. In fact, each is already in use in senior living today: mobile, voice, A.I. and IoT.

Like many of the current trends in senior living, the magic is in what happens when operators bring them all together.

As an example of the building-as-caregiver concept, Hillis cited the impact an operator can have on memory care residents by replacing standard chandeliers with LED smart chandeliers, which can affect the mood of people with various dementias, including Alzheimer’s.

“The chandelier senses who is walking into the room, and it is tied to the electronic health records through A.I., and it changes the light depending upon the time of day to help affect that person,” Hillis said.

This isn’t far-fetched. At Google, a patent from January 2018 outlines a bathroom mirror powered by optical sensors that would collect data on a person’s cardiovascular functions in order to create reports that the person could use to improve their health.

Google is also looking to bring its home automation product suite Nest into senior living, per a July 2018 report from CNBC. Nest Chief Technology Officer Yoky Matsuoka was even slated to speak at the 2018 NIC conference, but backed out for undisclosed reasons.

As smart home innovations grow more dynamic and more common, the benefits to senior living operators will intensify. The two most important ones that operators are citing: cost savings and improved staffing.

Source: United States Patent and Trademark Office

How smart tech saves operations money

Smart lighting and HVAC systems do more than make residents happy. They can make budgets happy.

“Focusing on HVAC, lighting, and some types of electrical loads, it is reasonable to expect savings in the range of 10 percent to 25 percent when implementing proactive energy management programs in mid-sized buildings,” cloud-based software Candi Controls CEO Steve Raschle wrote in 2016 on Intel’s blog.

A year earlier, the research vice president at research firm Gartner included an even bolder prediction of a potential 90% savings in energy cost for smart buildings.

Smart energy systems are useful for people of any age, but they play a specific role in senior living. Residents who can adjust their lights or thermostats remotely through their phones are no longer worried about leaving the apartment for a few hours and returning to a unit that is too dark or too cold.

“In the past when someone would leave their apartment, they would keep the heat cranked up,” Vizzoca says. “Now they don’t have to worry about that, and prior to their return they can put the heat back where they want it. So for those three or four hours (when they’re out), the heat’s not running, and it’s very efficient for us.”

Keeping staff happy

In 2018, national senior living association Argentum analyzed data from the U.S. Bureau of the Census’ 2016 American Community Survey, and saw that the senior living industry employed about 892,000 people in 2016. To meet forthcoming demand, the sector will have to add 300,000 employees by 2026.

Communities that start building smart capabilities today can help soften the impact of the staffing crisis by increasing automation, empowering residents and helping staff make the best decisions on how to assign their time on the job its highest and best use.

Innovation by recombination

As Bob Hillis, CEO of Direct Supply, noted in a 2017 presentation, many senior living operators are already using some or all of the following four pieces of technology: mobile, A.I., voice and IoT. Smart buildings are possible when all four are used together.

“Just trying to keep the staff levels where they are is very difficult,” Moody says. “Technology does not replace staff. (It) becomes an adjunct.”

Delovska-Trajkova of Ingleside believes that one of the causes of staffing trouble in senior living is that potential younger employees don’t see a future in the field, in part because they view it as stodgy and out-of-date. She sees smart tech as a tool to attract younger and better workers, ones who are more inclined to enthusiastically jump into senior living rather than backing into it.

And with younger staff, ideally, comes staff members who want to stay longer, with less turnover and hence deeper connections between staff and residents.

“People often think that tech will replace staff,” she says. “I think it’s augmenting staff, and it will help them do what’s best, which is caregiving. If we can augment their everyday job, everybody will be happy.”

The future of senior living smart homes

Beyond the building-as-caregivers and the cost efficiencies, beyond the voice-activated lights and the cardiovascular mirrors, perhaps the most exciting aspect of smart senior living is that the future is what you make it.

With the business imperatives at play for tech companies, senior living providers are going to have opportunities with their residents to shape the next iteration of smart senior living, simply by thinking critically about what they want to deliver, listening to residents about what they want and communicating both areas to tech companies.

“Real customer feedback and pain points would be the most valuable input,” Amazon’s Zenz wrote in her email about how senior living can help tech companies deliver for residents. “Senior living operators can be the voice and advocates for their customers.”

What that will look like is anyone’s guess. In March 2018, AI-fueled interior design company Digital Bridge conducted a survey with 1,100 customers and collected their top 10 bathroom innovations they wanted in the next decade. Responses included a hovering drone mirror that lets the user style the back of his hair, a full-body air-dryer and a facial recognition system that automatically adjusts water temperature and pressure to the user’s personalized settings.

Real customer feedback and pain points would be the most valuable input. Senior living operators can be the voice and advocates for their customers.

Sarah Zenz, Experts General Manager, Amazon

No matter what comes, the key for senior living is to have the infrastructure in place and the will, and vision, to proceed. Vizzoca recalls doing the company’s smart home groundbreaking last year, and realizing that the only way he could explain to residents where they were about to live was to tell them to picture the warm home feeling of “I Love Lucy” with the technology and milieu of “The Jetsons.”

“A lot of the operators I talk to, they’re older, and that’s okay … but they’re concerned about what’s going on today or meeting a bottom line,” he says. “The ones who say, ‘Don’t tell me how to do it. That’s how we’ve always done it and it’s always worked’ — that’s going to run its course here really soon.”