How technology is evolving in senior living communities

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Evelyn Lee
Evelyn Lee

Seniors today are living longer, fuller lives, and they are seeking housing options that match their desires. Increasingly, those desires do not include a traditional nursing home.

Seniors want to live independently but have the option of staged help as they need it. Senior living communities are seen as the perfect compromise, because residents often benefit from the convenient services, senior-friendly surroundings and social opportunities those communities offer.

Senior's lifestyles are changing in other ways, too. According to data from the Pew Research Center, nearly 60% of seniors go online, and 77% have a cell phone. Although seniors have been slower to adapt to technology than younger generations, their tech prowess continues to grow.

In fact, today, state-of-the-art technology services are becoming a prerequisite for many seniors when evaluating housing options. With technology now a requirement, senior living communities are tasked with catering to the needs and expectations of this generation, which includes building and upgrading facilities with technology in mind. For many newer communities, incorporating technology is a given, but this puts pressure on existing communities to upgrade their facilities as they seek to attract residents.

The demand for Wi-Fi

Installing Wi-Fi connectivity is one way communities are catering to seniors. In a 2013 Ziegler CFO Hotline technology survey, almost 74% of the chief financial officers surveyed said that their senior living organizations had invested in internet connectivity in the past 12 months. Internet access is a huge priority for seniors, because it allows them to keep in touch with friends, see pictures and videos of children and grandchildren and communicate with family members spread across the globe.

Internet cafés are another popular offering in senior living communities, providing tech-savvy residents with a place they can go to meet and mingle with others while browsing the internet. These cafes, along with traditional computer rooms, also can be excellent settings for ongoing technology training sessions provided by community management to keep residents current on topics, ranging from how to use social media to online shopping.

There is also a major social component enhancing the lives of seniors. Some communities are offering activities such as iPad clubs or Wii bowling tournaments, where seniors can play against one another and other residents across the country. These activities allow them to stay sharp, connected with the community and to continue learning about new technology.

Technology not just for leisure

Although technology is used heavily for leisure, many senior living communities are incorporating advanced technology to improve efficiencies and create a safer environment for residents. For example, some skilled nursing facilities are using sensory patches that can monitor how often a resident turns while in bed. This technology can help the nursing staff determine when assistance may be needed during the night.

In assisted living communities, technology can track staff members, determine response time to a resident's request for assistance and monitor who has come and gone from a resident's room. These data can be used to help reassure family members that their loved ones are receiving excellent services and attention.

In addition, it has become critical to automate back-office efforts, especially with billing, where more sophisticated requirements exist for technology use. Moving residents toward electronic pay is a priority. It increases accuracy and efficiency, resulting in fewer errors, which is key for those in government reimbursement programs, because errors can result in withheld payments and even fines.

Additionally, online billing is less expensive for a community and frees up staff time so employees can focus on their core competency — caring for and serving residents.

Getting your community on board

Although implementing technology in a senior living community can be an expensive and time-consuming process, it is truly essential to staying ahead of the curve. To keep up with the technology demands of current and future residents, communities should work directly with partners who understand the associated costs and can help them make the most of their offerings.

Many communities are using financing solutions for building renovations and technology upgrades such as high-speed internet and electronic medical records. Although these enhancements can require a sizable upfront investment, the long-term benefits may outweigh the cost.

Before making the decision to implement any technology, however, it is important to talk with a technology partner to help develop a tech plan as well as with a financial partner to help analyze the costs associated with the upgrades.

As with any capital investment, whether it is in plant, fixtures or technology, owners should weigh whether to pay out of pocket or to finance all or part of the expenditure.

Over the past several years, many communities that have been in the process of a refinancing or broader project have decided that it makes sense to include forward-looking technology expenditures into that project. This can be an alternative way to finance state-of-the-art facilities for residents without breaking the bank.  

Evelyn Lee is senior vice president of SunTrust's Aging Services practice.

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