When tech enthusiasts talk about senior care solutions, they tend to focus on the home. The lion’s share of today’s conversation centers on what communication apps and wearable technology can do to improve the experience of seniors who have decided to age in place. This focus is undoubtedly essential, given that 61% of seniors intend to do just that as they retire. However, when the spotlight is so firmly fixed upon seniors who choose to age in place, equally worthy investment opportunities in assisted care opportunities are left in the dark.
I want to look beyond the aging-in-place sector and instead focus on how technology stands to influence assisted living communities (ALCs). To clarify: the ALCs under discussion are vibrant and socially-driven housing options for those who need modest help with their activities of daily living — not nursing homes for the medically sick. These active communities are predominantly private pay; they receive little to no Medicaid coverage. Moreover, because an ALC’s residents are typically active seniors paying out of pocket, the buildings often seem more like high-class condos or hotels than medical institutions.
Technology’s capacity for making daily life more comfortable and convenient for older adults is well-established. However, the potential benefits go far beyond care coordination for seniors at home. Investors today have the opportunity to overhaul the way ALCs provide service to their residents – and improve the facilities’ operations in the process.
Improving Resident Experience
Seniors enter ALCs for a variety of reasons. Some are practical; a senior who doesn’t have an adult child or caregiver at home and is unable to bathe, dress, or organize their medicine without aid would need the support an ALC provides. However, even active seniors benefit from the social support communities offer.
Consider an older, retired parent who lives with their working adult child and their family. During most weekdays, the elder remains alone at home all day. They have little to no social interaction; their day primarily consists of reading or watching television. Their social support system is threadbare at best. These seniors might be able to take care of their physical needs without help, but their emotional and social needs are left unattended. The inadequate social support increases their risk of depression and may even have a negative impact on their physical health.
ALCs are designed to mitigate this problem. Assisted care facilities naturally provide opportunities for both spontaneous and planned social interactions. New technology can take these capabilities a step further by facilitating more engaging social experiences and better connecting residents. Take iN2L’s (It’s Never Too Late) senior-centered social engagement programs as an example. iN2L originally made its main screen products with Alzheimer’s residents in mind. Given that some 40% of ALC residents struggle with the condition, it is well-suited to assisted living spaces — however, it can be used for pure entertainment as well.
iN2L’s content-based system was specifically designed for users in assisted living settings; it comes pre-loaded with interactive games, puzzles, and generation-specific television programming. With the basic iN2L system, screens are set up in shared rooms where residents can gather and engage in facilitator-led, content-driven group activities. ALCs that implement the technology can create a more stimulating environment and better meet their residents’ social needs.
Human Resource Optimization
As investment properties, assisted living communities tend to have more in common with hotels than they do with medical facilities. The majority of their operational costs stem from staffing. Finding and retaining skilled hourly employees in the sector can become expensive. Similarly to any other service-driven business, ALCs need to maintain efficient operations to create an affordable experience for their residents and avoid costly human error. The latter is particularly important, given that a simple mistake — an overlooked senior fall, for example — could lead to costly medical bills, liability claims, and unsafe conditions for residents.
Technology can help communities lessen the risks posed by human error and inefficiency. Smart devices are all but universal in resident rooms and common spaces at this point; these tools help staffers monitor resident safety and improve internal communication and staff response times when a senior does need help.
More potential solutions on the horizon include wearables that can track a resident’s vitals and gait to predict instability or frailty and warn staffers before a fall occurs. One particularly promising innovation is a fall sensor designed to anticipate and warn staffers of potential stumbles during nighttime hours. The device senses when its wearer moves from horizontal to vertical positions, and can easily be tucked into a soft piece of fabric and wrapped around a resident’s ankle before bed. Though the sensor has not been officially rolled out for mainstream use, it has seen some promising results in trials with frequent fallers in a memory care community.
While advanced tools like these are still in development and haven’t become effective, affordable, and accessible enough to be widely adopted, their potential to standardize care, reduce liability, and improve staff effectiveness in the coming years is considerable.
The fact that digital platforms can vastly improve internal communication, efficiency, and organization is well-established. These frameworks are common across most industries; however, efficiency is particularly important for ALC management. Assisted care facilities are similar to healthcare-centric organizations in that they need systems that can effectively communicate across every department — from sales to billing and care delivery.
From a care perspective, ELC digital frameworks are gradually moving towards a more EHR-centric structure. After intake, administrators compile a resident’s needs, health conditions, and wants into an E-assessment, which is in turn translated into a flexible care plan. Because client files are centralized and digital, ELC staff can then access records at any time and annotate them as needed; some systems even have portals for family members to check in on a resident’s conditions or calendar.
Perhaps most importantly, shifting to forward-thinking, frequently-updated digital frameworks can make incident reporting simple, and spotting problematic trends easy. For example, if multiple residents experience falls in one part of the building, the incident pattern may indicate that the area should be assessed and corrected. Spotting and resolving the problem early thus cuts down on both the risk to patients and facility liability.
Technology doesn’t necessarily revolutionize how investors in the ALC sector address resident care or operations — it simply makes that care delivery and day-to-day function better. When well-implemented, technology can optimize operations for ALC organizations as a whole by improving residential care quality, facilitating the effective use of human resources, and bolstering operational efficiency.
John Rijos, former Brookdale president and current CEO of CPF Living Communities — one of the fastest-growing senior living companies in the United States — firmly believes that the innovative solutions up-and-coming technologies present will have a place in ALC communities soon. “We’re always looking for ways to improve the experience of our residents,” he explains, “Technology isn’t the only way to achieve that aim, but the innovations we see today are smoothing facility operations and brightening our residents’ day-to-day lives in ways that we might never have thought possible five or ten years ago.”