Older adults in more than 300 assisted living, independent living and affordable housing communities across the country are benefitting from a partnership providing 9,000 Google Nest Hub Max devices to residents.

The Google devices — which feature 10-inch touchscreens, two-way Google Duo video calling, eight languages and a mode for the hearing impaired — are being supplied, set up, powered and supported by Volara, a New York-based senior living voice assistant technology company. Deployments began in April 2020 and continue today.

Volara connected each device to the residents’ Wi-Fi and pre-configured residents’ personal calling contacts to allow residents to plug and play right out of the box. They also can use the devices to view photographs, listen to music, access daily news, enjoy jokes, play games, watch videos and more.

The initiative was made possible through a collaborative effort with industry groups including LeadingAge, CDW Healthcare, the Lighthouse for Older Adults project and Google.

“Technology’s potential to positively impact older adults’ lives and well-being is broad and deep,” LeadingAge President and CEO Katie Smith Sloan said. LeadingAge’s Center for Aging Services Technology partners with vendors, researchers and providers to expedite the use of emerging technology to improve the aging experience. “We must ensure older adults have access to internet service and devices so they can take advantage of the telehealth revolution and protect themselves from the ravages of social isolation,” she added.

Davis Park, vice president of Front Porch Center for Innovation and Wellbeing, said the company’s objective in participating was to use the technology to connect residents to their families, friends and others. 

“If there’s one thing COVID taught us, it’s that voice-based technology has a positive impact on seniors’ lives. Therefore, we must go faster and get more devices into more residents’ hands,” Park said.

Merrill Gardens initially deployed more than 850 devices for a test at six of its Washington state-based independent living and assisted living communities to determine whether the technology could help fight social isolation. 

“We were pleasantly surprised that the program was a huge success,” said Dalen Newton, the Merrill Gardens IT program manager. “The biggest hurdle was getting [residents] over the fear of trying it. But when the pandemic hit and residents were quarantined to their rooms, they were willing to do just about anything to connect with loved ones.”

Anne Sackrison, chief operating officer at affordable senior housing organization CSI Support and Development Services, said the pandemic put a spotlight on digital inequity for affordable senior housing residents and the challenges in access and affordability experienced by residents.

“The Google Nest Hub Max devices managed by Volara are extremely easy to use, more so than a laptop or even a tablet,” Sackrison said. “If there’s a silver lining to this pandemic, it’s that technology is helping to fill the void for physical activity, education, social engagements and also providing services like online shopping.”

Seventeen senior living organizations in the United States and the United Kingdom contracted with Volara for the devices. Among the U.S. organizations are Carmelite Sisters for the Aged and Infirm, Eden Housing, Eskaton, HumanGood, National Church Residences, Presbyterian Villages of Michigan, SPM Property Management, TELACU, Volunteers of America and Watermark Retirement Communities. 

Partner organizations in the United Kingdom include Nicholas James Care Homes, Oakland Care and St. Luke’s Hospital.

Volara CEO David Berger said that after using the voice assistant technology in hotels, retail outlets and airports for several years, the pandemic convinced the company to expand to senior living communities.

“When COVID-19 hit, we became concerned about the impact of forced isolation on seniors and knew we could provide a solution,” Berger said. “We became hyper-focused on enabling as many seniors as possible to communicate with their children, grandchildren, doctors and clergy face to face just by uttering a simple voice command.”

Berger said the effort was adopted by so many senior living organizations that it had to stop accepting new clients temporarily in the fourth quarter of 2020. But the company now is accepting new clients again. Pricing starts at $3 per device per month, excluding hardware and setup fees, or $12 per device per month including hardware and setup fees. The company, he added, developed premium custom solutions for the higher end of the market but hopes that this pricing makes the technology affordable to communities across the spectrum of senior housing providers.

“Seniors are hungry for the benefits of technology, and the forced isolation due to the pandemic only deepened their interest,” Berger said. 

According to Volara, 42% of the devices are used at least once daily — 55% of devices played music or videos, 41% gave a search / answer per day, and 27% made a call per day. Volara’s software manages more than 100,000 calling contacts for older adults using the devices.