The isolation required as a safety protocol during the pandemic has resulted in older adults — driven by a desire for social connection — embracing technology. Volunteers of America National Services, the second-largest provider of affordable housing to seniors nationwide, is witnessing this firsthand as 600 residents across nine communities are now using simple voice commands to connect to the people, services and information that are central to leading fulfilling and independent lives.
Pre-COVID-19, service coordinators at senior housing locations struggled to get their residents to engage with technology. Facing the effects of social isolation, however, older adults — as with many other groups — became eager to learn how to use mobile devices, voice assistants, tablets and laptop computers to visit with their loved ones, as well as meet with their physicians, clergy members and others in their social networks.
But there was a catch. Managed Wi-Fi to make connectivity possible in the residences was nonexistent, and no one — not residents or staff members — had the expertise to deploy those technologies at scale without extensive time and prior training.
But something amazing happened. Through its affiliation with LeadingAge, VOANS learned that a new technology offering was available to senior housing communities that offered two-way video calling on voice command. Through the solution, built atop the Google Nest Hub Max, not only could residents connect with their loved ones in any one of eight languages, but even those who were hard of hearing would be ensured a quality audible conversation through special accommodations made in the technology.
The Google Nest Hub Max device, configured for the senior housing community by Volara and Google, was sure to make an immediate impact, but without managed Wi-Fi, implementation was impossible. So, VOANS petitioned the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and funding for managed Wi-Fi was granted.
Today, with little to no training, senior residents of managed Wi-Fi-enabled VOANS communities are speaking simple commands to connect to people, information and entertainment. Equipped with a 10-inch touchscreen display and accompanying smart speaker, residents are saying, “Hey Google, call my daughter,” or “Hey Google, play I love Lucy,” or “Hey Google, what’s the weather forecast today?” and they have instant access without having to look up a phone number, connect an account or remember a thing.
I recently sat down with Ryan Elza, VOANS vice president of innovation and technology to discuss residents’ satisfaction with the Volara + Google solution. I have deep respect for Ryan, as he has been a pioneering force in the adoption of voice assistant solutions in senior living. Prior to joining VOANS, Ryan spearheaded the connected communities project at the AARP Foundation, which examined voice technology’s potential to eradicate social isolation for older adults. He was so passionate about the positive effects of voice technology on seniors’ lives that upon joining VOANS, he suggested to leadership that the organization make it a pillar of the company’s innovation program.
“Voice technology must be a part of VOANS’ standard offering. We simply can’t provide the best services to seniors without it,” Ryan told me. “If there is one thing that COVID taught us, it is that technology and connectivity is a vital part of everyone’s daily life and residents need it as part of their overall cognitive and physical health. It’s not just a matter of facilitating a video chat between a resident and his family member; rather, it’s about connecting our people to organizations, to medical experts, to wellness podcasts, to music, to laughter and life.”
Most people today, he noted, will live past the age of 65, and many will surpass the age of 85 years. Older adults, however, are at risk of suffering from multiple chronic diseases during their lifetimes, and secure housing and health care are of primary concern. VOANS is taking the housing and healthcare burden off older adults’ shoulders by providing them with affordable assisted living, adult day services, skilled nursing and other services, all while ensuring that they have the connectivity to everything they need off site.
The beauty of this technology initiative, Ryan said, is that the set-up for residents is hassle-free and not the responsibility of VOANS’ internal teams. Volara does all the work on the back end — including entering personal calling contacts into each device on behalf of the residents — so they can begin video-calling by voice command within seconds after receiving the solution. In an instant, residents can listen to their favorite music, access a YouTube video clip, view family photos and even play games, just by speaking.
“Giving seniors access to the Internet and technology like the Google Nest Hub Max is not a privilege, but a requirement and a necessity,” Ryan said. He added: “Too often when people look at large providers like VOANS, they automatically assume it has a robust technology infrastructure to support the portfolio. That just isn’t true. We do not have the capability to roll out these solutions without partners like Volara and financial assistance from groups like HUD. Without this technology, our people simply cannot connect to their doctors or have access to basic healthcare essentials without having to go through extensive training or requiring complicated support.”
The technology is designed for the unique needs of VOANS’ resident population, Ryan said. “It comes plug-and-play right out of the box, with no infrastructure requirements or set-up needed on behalf of our staff,” he said. “From the second we plug it in for our residents, it starts addressing social isolation. We strongly believe that this technology initiative will greatly improve wellness across our portfolio.”
VOANS is bridging the digital divide and, in doing so, facilitating social connectedness for its residents.
David Berger is founder and CEO of Volara, provider of custom voice-based solutions for the senior living and hospitality industries. Volara’s Technology Concierge Membership Program for senior living communities manages Alexa and Google assistant devices. More than 20 million people have used voiced-based solutions powered by Volara. To learn more, visit www.volara.io.
The opinions expressed in each McKnight’s Senior Living marketplace column are those of the author and are not necessarily those of McKnight’s Senior Living.