Keeping a balance

Across the country, senior living communities are striving to meet the needs of future residents. And because the new wave of seniors comes from the baby boom generation, they have certain expectations that go beyond those of their parents, such as enhanced aesthetics, amenities, comfort, technology and most of all, dignity.

New and renovated facilities have added many of these boomer-friendly upgrades, but with memory care now a regular part of assisted living, operators also need to be cognizant of balancing resident protection and security with independence and privacy. Obtrusive cameras, constant alarms and visible surveillance tools can make residents feel like prisoners.

Security experts contend that the advancements in predictive technologies and discreet wearable devices are creating a more relaxed environment while still providing the protection that residents need.

“This is really not a new challenge, and there are many communities that successfully balance safety and independence,” says Steve Elder, senior marketing manager for Stanley Healthcare. “It is probably true, however, that the boomer generation will demand even greater performance, expecting highly personalized services, complete freedom combined with high levels of safety, and the use of technology that is unobtrusive, sophisticated and contemporary in design.”

Laurence Yudkovitch, senior living product manager for RF Technologies, agrees that promoting a home-like environment is “very important” for attracting new residents and increasing census, both in terms of appealing to residents and their families. 

“Aesthetics cannot come at the cost of safety, however, so the goal for facilities is to eliminate the institutional look and feel of its safety devices,” he says. “Fortunately, wireless life safety devices — including nurse call stations and wander alert systems — can blend into the facilities’ décor while providing exceptional protection.”

While the challenge may not be new, it is definitely “immense,” says Colton Zirk, sales and marketing manager for Wireless NurseCall Systems.

“Operators must first establish their identity and understand their residents,” he says. “Once a community truly understands its resident population and capabilities of their staff, it becomes easier for them to balance safety and the resident experience.”

Still, Zirk maintains that maintaining balance is a constantly evolving task due to the fluid nature of the senior living environment.

“As the community population ages, technology advances and staff turnover occurs, in order to stay balanced it is key for these operators to constantly self-evaluate,” he says. “They need to understand what they are good at and what they could be better at, where they have improved and where they haven’t.”

Evaluating technology

There are three main factors to keep in mind when evaluating technology for memory care in the senior living environment, Elder says. The first is to ensure that protection can be tailored to the individual’s needs, the second is that it not detract from the ambiance of the community and the third is it should empower staff with information at the point of need so that they can respond quickly and with personalized service.

“There are many solutions that assist communities in protecting residents from specific risks, such as wandering or falls, or to enable them to call for assistance on any occasion,” Elder says. “This kind of wireless locating technology is widely adopted, and it holds great potential for predictive applications.”

For example, monitoring data on resident movement can flag a change in activity that may indicate a health issue. At this stage, this type of application is still in its infancy but is being explored by many organizations that see the potential to anticipate changes in resident needs, he says.  

Richard D. Helstrom, founder, president and CEO of Wireless Nursecall Systems, points out that wireless technology is becoming the standard for security and notes three main device types:

• Wireless alarms that transmit a signal when the resident leaves the bed or wheelchair;

• Motion detectors that transmit a signal when the resident uses the bathroom or is moving; and

• Wireless watch-like devices worn by the resident that transmit a silent signal whenever the resident is moving.

“Prior to the current wireless technology, devices monitoring the activities of memory care residents were local only and alarms were so loud that they irritated the residents,” Helstrom says. “Initially, the wireless devices required fixed power sources because the battery consumption was too great. Now improved chips and batteries allow facilities to install wireless alarms or information devices with small batteries that will last for months, if not a year.” 

With current wireless technology, information about the movement of a resident can be conveyed without local alarms, which eliminates agitation and frustration, Helstrom says.

“At the same time, this information can be compared to normal expected movement,” he says. “If the movement happening at any time doesn’t match normal patterns, staff can be alerted silently to check on the resident.”

Inclusion, not seclusion

Perhaps the finest line in the balancing act of fostering independence without sacrificing protection is with dementia and Alzheimer’s residents in memory care units. Because some memory care residents are prone to elopement and agitation, facilities understandably need to have a system in place that prevents them from wandering while preserving their dignity.

“Residents with dementia or Alzheimer’s appreciate routine — sticking with consistent patterns and decreasing change helps reduce agitation and frustration,” Yudkovitch says. “Safely giving them the ‘freedom’ to move around a facility is also beneficial. That’s where wander prevention systems can really help. These systems can give residents the freedom to roam, but will prevent them from leaving the facility.”

Accutech, which has been manufacturing wander management systems for 30 years, has become attuned to security for individuals rather than for the aggregate population. Through smart technology that reads wearable tags, individuals who present a flight risk will cause exit doors to automatically lock when they are in the vicinity, says Chris Konicek, Accutech sales and marketing director.

“In terms of design, we cover every point of egress that is considered open,” he says. “Because we have seen a shift where more assisted living facilities are adding memory care, residents of those units don’t have to be segregated from the general population.”

Predicting events

A new generation of technology is using predictive analytics to anticipate sentinel events before they happen and security experts believe it will proliferate in the future. But while having information that could prevent an accident from happening is a positive development, there are also potential pitfalls, says Steve Redeker, president of PalatiumCare.

“A bevy of new devices will be flooding the market in the next few years to discreetly monitor resident behavior that will be beneficial in helping caregivers engage their residents, armed with information to support any concern they may have,” he says. “The software to interpret this information, however, is still in its infancy. Regardless of how good this technology gets at predicting resident behavior and flagging potential problems, it can never replace the insight and instinct that is an important part of the relationship between a caregiver and a resident.”

The goal at PalatiumCare is to make it easier for caregivers to engage their residents when necessary, but also “to offer the dignity of privacy when the resident chooses,” Redeker says.

Overall, automated wander management systems with real-time locating technology are effective, safe and unobtrusive, says Chad Ries, director of strategic partnerships at CenTrak.

“Whether the solution prevents residents from wandering into potentially hazardous areas or alerts staff during health emergencies, advanced locating technology can ensure community safety,” Ries says. “By providing families with the peace of mind that their loved ones are secure and protected, senior living communities can stand out among others, helping to accelerate their residential growth.”

Ultimately, though, technology should complement personal interaction, not replace it, says Marcia Conrad-Miller, senior director of business transformation for Philips Healthcare Home Monitoring.

For instance, a tablet that communicates with resident tags could show caregivers each memory care resident’s profile as they enter the room.

“Knowing residents’ names, histories and their occupations could really help engagement,” she says. “Most memory care residents have really good long-term memories. If staff knew a resident was a teacher, bringing up those experiences could be very powerful.”