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Connecting through communication is an essential part of wellness. Providers are looking to new technologies
to make it easier—and discovering new challenges.

Hot pink blooming daisy

For senior living community providers, the “community” part of their promise can’t become reality without communication. That means easy, extensive, and effective ways to communicate among residents, residents and their families, and residents and providers.

Ted Doyle, vice president of marketing and communications for LCB Senior Living, says communication is essential to fulfill the core promise that a senior living community makes to its residents.

“This is their home, and one of the things that makes it feel like home is making them feel connected,” he says.

Good communication “allows us to make everyone feel a lot closer to each other and for our families to feel a lot more engaged with the community where their loved ones live.”

Research has demonstrated a strong correlation between social interaction and health and well-being among older adults, suggesting socialization can help reduce the effects of a variety of age-related disorders, according to the National Institute on Aging.

From our perspective, our residents can’t communicate enough,” says Kelly Andress, founder and president of SageLife.

“Implementing technology tools helps us track and measure engagement, reaching a broader audience and communicating the life and culture of the community,” says Craig Bushby, director of emerging technology for Life Care Services.

The industry interest for new tech means prospective solutions from startups and long-time tech companies alike are flooding the market. Julie Masiello, senior vice president of technology and marketing for Brightview Senior Living, says developers have identified senior living as an industry “ripe for new technology investment.”

“I get literally hundreds of calls and emails every month from companies pitching new technology ideas,” Masiello says.

“The old way of thinking was that senior living residents wouldn’t be interested in using technology until the baby boomer population ages and begins to move into our communities. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.”

Talking tech

These new technologies give senior living providers a variety of touchpoints to consider.  Residents can communicate and receive communications using everything from their TV set to a smart phone voice assistant.

“The old way of stuffing envelopes into people’s mailboxes or under doors, or calling people one by one, it just doesn’t work today,” says Bruce Baron, CEO of VoiceFriend, which allows communities to send automated notifications via telephone, text, email, and voice-activated technology. “Technology gives you so many new ways of reaching out.”

SageLife’s Andress says its communications-related tech investments focus on programming and activities, because the company sees those engagement areas as being “the front line for customer satisfaction.”

SageLife uses tools such as Visual Touch, which allows residents not only to check the status of their food and beverage accounts but to learn about dining-related events; Touchtown, a suite of engagement and communications tools; and Sagely, a senior living resident engagement platform that can help boost participation in activities and inform wellness design.

Solutions can also help a targeted group communicate more easily. LCB and Brightview are among those that use Eversound, a wireless headphone system for seniors with hearing loss. “Many residents have age-related hearing loss, and that can lead to lower participation in activities and eventual isolation,” Masiello says.

Doyle, at LCB, says giving residents a way to overcome an obstacle to engagement has obvious value. “It’s made a tremendous impact for us,” he says.

“[Residents are] comfortable with technology and embrace the opportunities that come with it,” Andress says. “They see it as an enhancer to their lives.”

Many senior living residents arrive already active on social media channels and use these frequently to stay engaged with friends and family. Both Doyle and Masiello say their organizations primarily use social media as a communication tool to bridge communities and resident families.

Facebook is most popular in many communities—the Pew Research Center says 46 percent of U.S. adults 65-and-older use the platform. Brightview communities’ residents, for instance, can post their calendars on their Facebook pages, allowing adult children to keep up to date with what’s coming up and to see photos from events.

Looking ahead, Masiello and other senior living experts see rapid tech advances, including in the realm of the Internet of Things (IoT): computing devices that are embedded in devices, appliances, furniture, or even walls and floors. These send and receive data and can provide constant connectivity.

In senior living, IoT offers the promise to keep residents continually engaged and provide data-based insight about how to better serve residents, though communities must consider the need to manage privacy and security risks. Masiello says Brightview is “laying the foundation in 2020 to add IoT functionality for communications purposes as well as safety, building efficiency, and security systems.”

Doyle is also among the senior living experts to see vast potential in IoT’s voice-activated technology, such as Amazon’s Alexa. LCB offers Alexa in the residences of all its newer communities.

Residents can ask for maintenance, housekeeping, or wellness support; check on daily dining specials; and learn about activities on the calendar, among other uses.

Doyle believes voice-activated technology will become an integral part of senior living communities.

“It’s inevitable,” Doyle says. “Anyone developing buildings right now and not having voice-activated technology installed is going to be behind the curve.”

Weighing the field

In the face of the onslaught of shiny tech tools, it’s easy to be swayed. But choosing technology must start with the challenge and not with the tool, Doyle says. “You have to ask, ‘What’s the problem this could solve for us?’”

Investing in technology that gets outpaced can prove costly not only financially but operationally. To help avoid this, Life Care Services has an innovation council, Bushby says. The group evaluates technology products on a variety of key factors, including potential impact on residents’ health, safety, and quality of life.

Integration of new technology is among the toughest challenges communities face when adopting new solutions. Too many vendors offer solutions that are not complementary with the tech infrastructure that communities already have in place, requiring costly capital investments.

“To make effective use of these new systems, communities must have a secure, ubiquitous, well-managed, bandwidth-rich network,” Bushby says. “This is the first step to make it all possible. Without it, residents and staff will be dissatisfied, and the results will be frustrating.”

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Andress agrees, saying “ease of integration” was at the top of her wishes for vendors. “I really don’t have any more room for technology that only does one thing,” Andress says.

“If a technology developer has never worked in senior living, they typically get an idea about 70 percent of the way to being really great,” Brightview’s Masiello says. “Tha

t other 30 percent of changes and upgrades can be incredibly frustrating for a senior living provider and their residents to slog through.”

Will there be smoother communication ahead? Eclipse Senior Living CEO Kai Hsiao is frank in his assessment: “Most developers of technology don’t come from the industry, therefore don’t know what we really need, or how to make the interface user- friendly. The product is often created for another space—such as skilled nursing—and modified for senior living,” he says.

“You just don’t see many Silicon Valley millennial developers hanging out at a senior living community seeing how caregivers interact with residents, or how executive directors interact with resident families,” Hsiao says. “Until that happens, the technology gap will continue.”

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