Stereotypes view anyone over 50 as barely able to keep up with technology and unable to use smartphones, Skype or Netflix. But technology already plays an important role in the lives of many seniors, even those over 75. It is reshaping the ways seniors live and interact in their homes and within senior housing communities.
Today, most senior housing communities offer wifi access to residents and many provide a computer center and computer training and support for residents. Wii and other gaming systems are widely used for bowling and other socially and physically engaging activities. But the use of technology to enhance resident’s lives and improve the quality and efficiency of care delivery is still in its early stages.
I strongly believe the use of technology will continue to grow in seniors housing, particularly as the baby boom generation, now 51 to 69, age into seniors housing. The baby boomers were the first generation to being interacting with computers during their school years and are generally much more comfortable using technology than the Roaring Twenties and Depression Era babies using technology in senior housing communities today.
Much has been made of the ability of technology to enable a greater proportion of old, frail seniors to living independently and I believe we will see continued progress in this area. But I also see technology increasingly being used within senior housing communities to enhance 1) communication and interaction, 3) engagement, 3) evaluation and 4) mobility.
Communication and Interaction
FaceTime, Skype and similar services are a vital link between grandparents and grandchildren and may be the biggest single driver spurring current senior housing residents, generally 75 years of age or older, to use smartphones and computers. These same tools, along with more conventional email, are now and will increasingly be used to link adult children and other family members with senior housing residents and, for the savvy senior housing operators, to link adult children with caregivers and administrators to get more timely and more interactive information on how their loved ones are faring in senior housing communities. These same tools will also become an increasingly important link between senior housing communities and other caregivers outside the community, including physicians and hospitals. Healthcare IT and data interoperability among facilities and caregivers is still in its infancy but some forward thinking operators are building data links between their facilities, hospitals and other healthcare providers. The goal here is to improve communication, reduce unnecessary hospitalizations and adverse drug interactions but the technology also has the potential to greatly improve communication with seniors themselves and with their families regarding healthcare issues.
Use of Wii and other video games to engage seniors socially and mentally barely crack the potential of technology to enhance engagement and mental stimulation for seniors, who often feel isolated in senior housing facilities today. Why not use technology to deliver high quality courses, concerts, yoga and other activities with better trained and more professionally produced programs than are possible with local volunteers and on-site staff. Most senior housing residents in my observations are bored in their communities and would welcome more stimulating programming that technology can likely deliver better and less expensively. There is also emerging technology, such as robots of various types, that has the potential to engage residents much more actively and much more regularly than can be done today by human staff. As the cost of this technology declines, a robot companion for every resident that wants one is a realistic near-term possibility and robots, in addition to engaging residents directly, could also offer video links to family members and care givers and friends potentially in a more seamless way than is possible with current smartphone and computer software.
While I was on vacation this past month, there was an article on July 2, 2015 in the “Personal Journal” section of the Wall Street Journal about a dating service for seniors started by the Hebrew Home in Riverdale to connect its residents. While this dating service appears to be more staff than technology driven, it points out another potential use of technology for engaging senior housing residents that even most professionals working in the field would not have considered.
Seniors housing facilities are regularly evaluating residents to determine what level of services and support is appropriate and a range of caregivers inside and outside senior housing facilities are regularly evaluating seniors mental and physical conditions to ideally adjust care and medications levels to avoid falls and other adverse health conditions. Technology is emerging, including devices such as the Apple Watch and Fitbit, to monitor various health parameters. To date this technology has been focused on younger, healthy, tech savvy adults, not seniors. But I see significant opportunities for seniors’ health conditions to be monitored in greater detail in real time in an unobtrusive manner and to alert caregivers when key vital signs, like blood sugar or blood pressure, deviate from established norms. Using technology to monitor cognitive ability on a regular basis is already possible via online tests and will be using increasingly in seniors housing communities, I believe. Also, as noted above under communication, some degree of remote patient assessment and diagnosis is already happening in some senior housing communities as on site staff reach out to on-call physicians or nurse practitioners. Expanded use of remote technology for resident healthcare evaluation has the potential to significantly enhance the ability of facilities to address resident needs without resorting to an ambulance call or hospital visit.
An entrance fee CCRC in Baltimore, near where I live, recently added a Zipcar site in its parking lot. The service is available to residents and staff and has the benefit of reducing demand for parking from seniors holding on to their cars, improving mobility options for residents still able to drive and for staff, many of whom rely on public transportation to get to and from work. I haven’t seen details about how Zipcar may qualify seniors to drive its vehicles but this concept seems to be to offer greatly enhanced mobility options for seniors and staff. The other options that I see significantly enhancing mobility options for seniors are Uber and Lyft type services, which can provide much better and more flexible mobility options for senior housing residents that the typical senior housing facility van. Seniors are already using Uber and Lyft from their homes but I have not yet seen senior housing communities formerly engage Uber and Lyft in lieu of or in addition to offering the conventional van. Nor have I seen these services target senior housing communities by training drivers to deal with senior residents or equipping vehicles with handicapped access but these accommodations would seem to offer great potential to enhance senior housing resident mobility. I believe there is a significant opportunity both for Uber and Lyft and for senior housing operators to develop a ride sharing service specifically designed for and targeted to seniors living on their own and in senior housing facilities.
Guidance for Operators
It is unlikely in my view that grand integrated technology solutions will appear for communication/interaction, engagement, evaluation and mobility. Rather innovation by operators and technology companies will likely create technology to address specific issues and operator will be left to integrate these into their operations. The best way for operators to prepare for new technology, in my view, is to build innovation and experimentation into their operations, working with small groups of staff or individual properties. Try things, some will work, some won’t but over time technology offers the potential to significantly enhance the resident experience in seniors housing and to increase care quality and delivery. Operators able to innovate will be able to differentiate themselves from competitors and offer services that will not be available in seniors’ homes.