May 10 2021

Smart Technologies Create a More Connected Environment for Older Adults

Life plan communities for older adults use a variety of technologies to improve the lifestyles of their residents.

Communities for older adults have undergone major changes over the past year, but the landscape was evolving even before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold last spring.

One key change: The residents arriving at these communities are significantly younger. A few years ago, a typical first-time customer would likely have been near 78 years old, perhaps even as old as 80, says Gale Morgan, senior vice president of sales for Mather, an organization with “Life Plan” communities in Illinois and Arizona. These days, the age of a first-time resident is around 72, she says.

These younger residents bring with them different expectations of the communities they live in. They expect these communities to offer a range of amenities that reflect their reliance on technology. “These are the baby boomers. They’re very tech savvy,” Morgan says. “So, for us, it’s been important to be tech savvy too.”

With that in mind, in early 2020, Mather embarked on a smart home pilot program at its newest location, a development called Splendido at Rancho Vistoso in high-desert Tucson. Led by Mather IT Project Manager Ryan Squitieri, the organization gave five of the community’s nearly finished villas a floor-to-ceiling technology makeover.

“Our goal was total connectivity,” Squitieri says. “But the tech also had to be reliable and easy, not something the residents would probably never use.”

The steps Mather has taken to accommodate these residents reflect a larger trend in the senior living industry. Many communities are deploying a variety of technologies to create a greater connection among residents and staff. These technologies — including mobile devices, smart speakers and assistants, and wearable solutions — enable self-reliance and a better overall living experience for older adults.

LEARN MORE: Virtual reality makes a real impact on senior care.

Squitieri and his team ultimately decided to deploy a range of technologies from Apple and Google. They installed voice-controlled smart lights in both indoor and outdoor areas, and put smart speakers in bedrooms and kitchen areas. The homes were also outfitted with Google Nest video doorbells, so residents can identify and speak to visitors before they let them in, and with Nest thermostats and temperature sensors, allowing residents to set rooms throughout a unit at different temperatures. Further, Squitieri says, all living room windows were equipped with motorized blinds. Residents can adjust these — and all other smart devices — using either their personal smartphone or the preconfigured Apple iPad device they receive when they move into their villa. They also can access everything from community common areas using Splendido’s own public Google Nest Hub smart displays.

“There’s Wi-Fi everywhere, so all they have to do is log in and go,” Squitieri says.

According to Morgan, the Splendido pilot was so successful that they’re now rolling out the tech in 13 more villas. And at a new Mather community slated to open in Tysons, Va., in 2023, similar smart home technologies will be included in all of the apartments “as the standard moving forward,” she says.

Technology Is a New Normal for Older Adults

Mather may be on the cutting edge when it comes to technology adoption among senior living communities, but it’s not alone in this regard. The company is one of a growing number of organizations that have recognized the benefits that technology can provide their residents.

“I think most aging-services providers are keenly aware that their customers have become more comfortable with technology,” says Majd Alwan, senior vice president of technology and business strategy and the executive director of the LeadingAge Center for Aging Services Technologies. Before the pandemic, Alwan says, this trend mostly centered on personal devices, such as tools that older adults primarily used for communication and entertainment. It also tended to apply to the “younger” senior set much more than it did to those over the age of 80.

The same holds true today, more than a year after the COVID-19 pandemic began. But now many of these technologies have a healthcare focus, and adoption has accelerated among residents of all stripes, Alwan says.

“Older adults who may have resisted technology were baptized by fire, so to speak, when they had to use it for telehealth or to connect with family and friends,” he says.

LeadingAge’s membership includes more than 5,000 nonprofit aging- services providers, Alwan says. “Based on what we’ve heard from them, they don’t think we’ll ever go back to the way things were. Telemedicine, biometric monitoring, applications that remind people to take their medications — these are all now part of what they’re starting to see as the new normal.”

Older Adults ‘Excited’ About Technology

Maryland-based Asbury Communities is among those organizations that are increasingly incorporating technology into the older adult resident experience. A nonprofit system with communities in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Tennessee, Asbury is also the parent company of ThriveWell Tech, an IT consulting firm focused on independent living for older adults.

In 2018, at an Asbury site in Maryland, Asbury and ThriveWell conducted a pilot where residents volunteered to use Amazon Alexa virtual assistant devices and wearables such as Apple Watches. The organization’s goal at the time, says ThriveWell Tech President Nick Patel, was to drive improvements in communication and to see if the devices might help with preventive care. In that regard, the effort was highly successful. “What we learned is that seniors are excited about technology,” Patel says. “If you provide them with training and show them what it can do, most really want to use it.”

The biggest takeaway from the initiative, Patel says, was that success depends on having a strong IT infrastructure. Toward that end, his group is restructuring Asbury’s entire technology stack and is working with the organization’s senior leadership team to align their goals with a well-developed technology strategy.

MORE FROM HEALTHTECH: Five technologies expected to impact older adults.

Meanwhile, ThriveWell has moved on to a number of pilot programs involving Asbury and other senior living organizations. In one upcoming pilot, for example, staff in day centers funded through the federal Program for All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly will use a proprietary technology to measure residents’ stability on their feet to determine whether they’re at risk for a fall. Individuals who are identified as at-risk will then use another technology in their homes that both monitors their activity and sends staff an alert when unexpected motion is detected.

Similarly, Patel says, a National Institutes of Health-sponsored initiative will give residents biosensors to track vital signs. The data will be fed into a predictive model that could provide advance warning of serious medical events.

Patel thinks the real potential of technologies like these is in the information they can offer caregivers once they’re integrated with other senior living platforms. “We’re not there yet,” he says, “but imagine if we could combine these things with dining data or with wellness data.”

He can picture a scenario where the staff at an Asbury facility may receive an alert that a resident’s heart rate is elevated. The system would allow a staff member to conduct a cross-check and quickly confirm that the individual is taking an aerobics class. “The alert in that case is very different,” Patel says. “Now, what you’re seeing is one of your customers trying to take his health into his own hands.”

Photography By Jim David