Easterseals Southern California CIO Stacie DePeau, left, and Lupe Trevizo-Reinoso, Vice President of Living Options, managed the home’s tech-friendly makeover.

Feb 14 2020

How Easterseals Outfitted a Smart Home for Residents with Disabilities

Tablets, smart speakers and other technologies make life safer and simpler for people with special needs.

After living most of their lives in state institutions, four adults with developmental disabilities gained greater freedom a year ago when they moved into a residential home in Southern California. Now, newly installed smart home technology makes it possible for them to live more independently and safely.

Easterseals Southern California, which owns and operates the ranch-style, four-bedroom house, recently furnished it with smart devices throughout. Each resident has a Breezie tablet and a voice-activated Google Home smart speaker, and can use them to control lights, the thermostat, the living room TV — even the garage and sprinkler system.

The devices also allow users to open and close window blinds, turn on the bathroom shower with preset temperatures or unlock the front door to welcome guests.

“We have Easterseals staff in the home supporting them 24/7, but our goal is to help them feel independent so they don’t have to ask somebody else, ‘Hey, can you do this for me?’” says Stacie DePeau, the organization’s CIO.

Senior living communities and residential home operators are increasingly adopting smart technology to boost safety and to help seniors and people with disabilities live fuller, more autonomous lives. The tools help individuals with poor vision or limited mobility perform everyday tasks, such as turning on the light.

Smart speakers with virtual personal assistants can play music, remind residents to take their medication, and reduce isolation by facilitating phone calls or video chat. For care providers, home-based technologies can aid care through telemedicine — as can sensors that monitor the use of refrigerators and restrooms, among other things, to detect changes from typical patterns.

“We are still in the early days of adoption with technology-enabled care in the home and in senior living facilities, but there is tremendous conversation about and experimentation with how these technologies can improve the quality of life, safety and the efficient delivery and accessibility of care,” says Brad Russell, research director of Connected Home at Parks Associates, a market research and consulting firm in Texas.

To successfully deploy smart technologies, organizations must invest in robust Wi-Fi networks, have plenty of bandwidth and ensure the security and privacy of each resident when using the devices, Russell and other IT leaders say.

Easterseals Keeps a Focus on Purpose-Driven Design

Clients of Easterseals Southern California typically have intellectual and physical disabilities, so the nonprofit sought to identify and deploy smart technologies to maximize the residents’ independence.

“Our goal was to look at what we could design for their unique needs, so they could take ownership of their home,” says Lupe Trevizo-Reinoso, the organization’s vice president of ­living options.

The Easterseals team researched smart home devices and collaborated with CDW and other tech vendors on designing a comprehensive solution. Breezie, which customizes Samsung Galaxy tablets with a user-friendly interface, worked closely with Easterseals to personalize features for each resident.

While some residents take advantage of tablets and smart speakers, less verbal residents gravitate toward tablets; residents who are blind or have limited mobility prefer spoken commands, Trevizo-Reinoso says.

Easterseals implemented the technology in phases during the past year. For example, they installed Nest thermostats, a Nest video doorbell and a Samsung digital door lock. When someone rings the doorbell, residents get an alert on their tablet. They can see the visitor on the webcam and unlock the door from the tablet, says John Peters, an Easterseals administrative assistant who helped research the technology.

Residents can also use voice c­ommands or the tablet’s touch screen to turn on a smart shower at just the right water temperature. This benefits residents who can’t reach the shower handles or have circulatory issues and can’t tell if water is scalding, DePeau says.

DePeau also configured a shared wireless network in shared spaces, but to meet security and privacy requirements, she configured separate Wi-Fi networks in each bedroom. “There’s no cross-contamination of information on the network,” she says.

Easterseals finished installing the smart home technology in January and is making plans to outfit the organization’s 22 other residential homes.

“For people with disabilities, technology levels the playing field so everyone has independence and the ability to participate and engage,” DePeau says.

Virtual Assistants Play a Growing Role in Senior Communities

In Chicago, The Admiral at the Lake retirement community offered Amazon Echo Dot smart speakers to all 200 of its independent living residents in December 2018. Today, more than half — 110 of them — are taking advantage.

They use Echo devices for news and entertainment, and to check the daily menu and social activities. Residents in wheelchairs can use voice commands to turn on lights or the TV, while blind residents can verbally send and receive email, says Akintunde “LJ” Littlejohn, The Admiral at the Lake’s IT director.

A few times, residents have fallen in their apartments and couldn’t get up, but Alexa, the virtual assistant on the Echo, came to the rescue. “They didn’t have their emergency pendants on, so they told Alexa to call the front desk,” he says.

75%

Percentage of seniors who used their smart speakers at least once a day during a pilot at the Carlsbad By The Sea retirement community in San Diego

Source: Front Porch Center for Innovation and Wellbeing

The Admiral at the Lake, founded in 1858, built a new 31-story building in 2012, so it has a modern fiber-optic backbone. The building has plenty of bandwidth with a 1-gigabit-per-second internet connection and 250 HPE Aruba Networks Wi-Fi access points.

The Echo devices are easy to install and manage. The retirement community’s residential technology steering committee helped configure and install them in residents’ rooms. Littlejohn uses Amazon’s web-based management software to centrally manage all the devices.

“You connect them to the internet and push down the configuration. I haven’t had to intervene once,” says Littlejohn, who this year plans to make smart speakers available to residents in assisted living or who receive skilled nursing services. 

LEARN MORE: Read a CDW and Front Porch white paper about the value of virtual reality in senior care.

Ease of Use Drives Senior Tech Adoption

Back in California, the nonprofit Front Porch piloted the use of Amazon Echo smart speakers in 2017. The Glendale, Calif., organization that owns 10 full- service retirement communities knew immediately that the technology was a game changer, says Chief Innovation and Technology Officer Kari Olson.

When Front Porch surveyed residents at its Carlsbad By The Sea retirement community in San Diego, 100 percent said the Echo made their lives easier. Likewise, 71 percent felt more connected to family, friends and the community, and 93 percent said pairing the devices with other smart technology increased their enjoyment.

“Right there, we knew we were on to something,” says Olson, who is also president of the Front Porch Center for Innovation and Wellbeing. “We were worried that technology might isolate people, but this is a platform that creates convenience, independence and well-being, and strengthens connections.”

The organization has a strong network infrastructure to support the devices, having installed Cisco Aironet Wi-Fi access points throughout the 10 retirement communities in 2014.

Today, two-thirds of Carlsbad By The Sea’s 225 residents use Echos; nearly 600 users are spread across eight Front Porch properties, and the organization is exploring new uses, such as voice-activated augmented reality goggles.

“The technology is so impactful and easy to use,” Olson says. “It’s something older adults and their loved ones have gravitated to. We have yet to fully tap the potential of this.”

PHOTOGRAPHY By John Davis

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