Jul 13 2022

How Networking Upgrades in Senior Care Are Boosting Experiences for Providers and Residents

Wi-Fi upgrades prepare care organizations serving older adults for more tech-savvy residents and improved clinical workflows.

The pandemic may have accelerated network upgrades in senior care, but providers see long-term benefits, especially as their clientele becomes increasingly tech savvy. Pervasive Wi-Fi, supported by robust network management tools, sets a foundation for strategic improvements for staff, residents and overall operations.

That proved to be the case for Enlivant, headquartered in Chicago and serving 214 independent, assisted living and memory care communities in 27 states. CIO Justin Sheppard was still in the first 90 days of his role when the pandemic hit in 2020, adding new urgency to plans to upgrade and refresh Wi-Fi throughout the Enlivant portfolio.

Connecting residents with their families during extended COVID-19 lockdowns was a primary driver for the project. But there was also a business need, as lockdowns curtailed in-person tours that are vital for prospective residents. Enlivant shifted to virtual tours via Zoom and other videoconferencing platforms, Sheppard says, but “it was pretty evident early on that the Wi-Fi in many of our communities wasn’t sufficient to support a virtual tour.”

Click the banner below to learn how senior care technology supports caregivers and older adults.

One problem was that existing infrastructure was approaching the end of life. In addition, when staff installed the Wi-Fi several years ago, they didn’t anticipate modern services that would require wide-ranging connectivity.

“There weren’t as many access points in the community to provide what I’d call comprehensive Wi-Fi coverage,” Sheppard says.

The solution was a complete upgrade of core networking equipment, including firewalls, switches, cabling and access points. “We doubled or tripled the number of APs in each of our communities,” Sheppard says.

Enlivant had relied primarily on Cisco technology, and Sheppard recognized that standardizing on Cisco Meraki equipment — MX firewalls, MS switches and MR APs — would ease management. Remote visibility and robust telemetry into performance were critical, primarily because IT staffers work out of Chicago.

“Essentially, we are managing 215 discrete networks,” he says. “The ability to see the status of the networks on one pane of glass was important.”

Dan Forthofer, Enlivant’s senior director of IT, infrastructure and security, says the move toward simplification benefited network administration and support. 

“We use a third party to monitor and respond to initial infrastructure issues at our communities, and standardizing on Cisco Meraki has made that easier,” Forthofer says. “Meraki is also a cloud-based platform, so it lessens our need to buy and host equipment for management.”

Enlivant has completed upgrades in one-third of its communities so far, with the remainder slated for the next two to three years.

Senior Care Visual Sidebar

Creating a Network Foundation for the Future of Senior Care

For Enlivant residents, better Wi-Fi means coverage is consistent — no longer strong in some apartments while spotty in others. That has improved the user experience and engagement, and allowed for new initiatives, such as putting Apple iPad devices in every community.

“Because we’re in the business of caring for people, it’s been extraordinarily impactful in terms of our residents’ experience,” Sheppard says.

During the pandemic, virtual visits became a critical service for many seniors. But the value of technology goes much further, says Tom Kamber, executive director of Older Adults Technology Services from AARP.

Technology adoption by older adults improves access to health information, tools and content; enables use of digital resources for financial management and e-commerce; connects people to opportunities for civic engagement; and opens up new avenues for creative expression and learning,” Kamber says.

On the clinical side, better Wi-Fi has allowed Enlivant to start piloting electronic health records. “Where those communities have had upgraded networks, we’ve seen a better ability to support the use of EHRs, specifically at the point of care,” Sheppard says. For instance, when staff visit residents, they can now use tablets to document their visits directly in the EHR.

For providers, IT initiatives are essential both to meet the evolving needs of residents and to deliver care, particularly as staffing shortages persist, according to the American Health Care Association/National Center for Assisted Living.

Source: AARP, “Older Adults Embrace Tech for Entertainment and Day-to-Day Living,” December 2021

Building Human Connections in Senior Care with Stronger Networks

In Northern California, Eskaton has 34 communities and programs, including all levels of senior care and affordable senior housing. Before the pandemic, it had deployed an enterprise platform that acted as a hub for digital signage, voice-activated devices and other tools.

In 2020, the company moved quickly to roll out additional solutions, which required expanded network capacity. To accommodate new pandemic check-in procedures, for instance, it reconfigured workflows at kiosks and entry gates. That meant augmenting Wi-Fi coverage to locations that hadn’t needed it before.

“There were a lot of networking conversations,” says Chief Strategy Officer Sheri Peifer.

Enhanced networking also supported a better documentation process for skilled nursing clinicians. Instead of taking residents’ vital signs manually and inputting them into records at a computer, nurses now use devices that link to EHRs, enabling them to record vitals automatically at the bedside.

One of Eskaton’s most significant initiatives was an upgrade of broadband Wi-Fi, accompanied by deployment of tablets and Amazon Echo Show devices, at three senior affordable housing communities. Eskaton completed the work in partnership with the University of California, Berkeley’s Lighthouse for Older Adults project.

Eskaton had installed Wi-Fi in common areas years ago, but like many such communities nationwide, individual apartments lacked high-quality coverage. Now, every apartment in the three communities has Wi-Fi connectivity, and Eskaton is working on upgrades to the remainder of its affordable housing portfolio.

In addition to facilitating telehealth and other services, improved Wi-Fi also helps the community’s diverse residents build social connections, Peifer says.

“It’s not uncommon to live in an apartment next to someone who you, unfortunately, can’t communicate with because one speaks Hmong and one speaks Farsi, for example,” she says. But now, using Wi-Fi, tablets and translation apps, residents have a new way to connect.

“One resident knocked on her neighbor’s door for the first time, walked in with her device and they had a conversation,” Peifer says.

Planning for a New Network Baseline in Senior Care

In Florida, Dylan Fresh’s great-grandfather founded St. Mark Village in 1977. Today, Fresh serves as the technology director, and the nonprofit organization has two campuses about an hour west of Tampa: one with an assisted living community and one with a 500-unit independent living center and a healthcare wing for memory care, skilled nursing, rehab and assisted living.

When Fresh came on board in 2019, he evaluated the IT environment and found ample room for improvement. An extensive upgrade was soon underway, including new servers, security appliances and software, endpoints and other solutions.

Tackling the network was next. St. Mark Village initially paused the project at the pandemic’s arrival, but quickly realized that better Wi-Fi was necessary to support staff and residents during lockdown. Fresh had used Cisco Meraki in a previous position and wanted to bring its network visibility to St. Mark Village.

“Every bit of the network infrastructure was upgraded,” he says, including firewalls, switches, APs and more. A near-term expansion of Cisco Meraki APs will bring the total number to 250 across both campuses.

Justin Sheppard
We felt it was important to put this foundation in place because that’s just going to be a baseline expectation from residents and their families.”

Justin Sheppard CIO, Enlivant

The upgrade has enabled other improvements, too. During the lockdown, residents could visit with family members via videoconferencing and on smart TVs. Better connectivity also supported safety measures, such as iPad kiosks where visitors could answer questions related to COVID-19 and thermal cameras that performed temperature screenings. Clinicians now have access to 80 iPads that IT staff can manage easily through Cisco Meraki Systems Manager. InformaCast Fusion provides solid reliability for Internet of Things-based mass communication in emergencies.

Modernizing the network also supports more robust security, Fresh says. Previously, the network was flat, without any segmentation. Now, Fresh is leveraging the Cisco Meraki solution to move residents onto the business network. Every resident will have a unique Identity Pre-Shared Key (iPSK) to securely connect devices to a single SSID, but those connections won’t be visible to their neighbors.

Most new residents at St. Mark Village want strong Wi-Fi, good security and the same devices they used in their homes, such as Ring doorbells, Fresh says.

At Enlivant, Sheppard has seen a similar shift. “That’s only going to continue,” he says. “We felt it was important to put this foundation in place because that’s just going to be a baseline expectation from residents and their families.”

aaa 1

Register