This article is sponsored by iN2L. In this Voices interview, Senior Housing News sits down with iN2L co-founder Jack York to learn how COVID-19 brought more senior housing residents into the fold of using engagement technology, why all residents, no matter their age or cognitive ability, can find joy and what York wants from his own technology when he is older — European travel videos, Nebraska Cornhuskers games and lots and lots of Bruce Springsteen.
Senior Housing News: What are the most informative career stops that you’ve had that you draw from most frequently in your current position?
Jack York: [Laughs.] Twenty-one years, there are a lot of stops along that bus route, that’s for sure. I think you look at our inception and it’s very spiritual for me. A friend of mine back in 1998, never thinking of it as a business, had the idea to donate computers to some local assisted living communities in Southern California.
I was living the good life in Silicon Valley. I had money and no time and she had time and no money. I paid for a few computers and then she went and actually worked with the residents. It was amazing to see the changes that took place in a very small percentage of residents.
Certainly, the most seminal first stop was just donating computers and then having it turned into the idea for a business. We got a really significant contract with Brookdale about 10 years ago. That opened up the for-profit world to the reality of, “Maybe we should start looking at technology for our residents.” That was transformational.
Tell us about iN2L. Who does it serve and what is its mission?
York: Our mission and our passion from day one has been to look at how senior living uses engagement technology as a way to transform the lives of residents, staff and family. The customer is the senior living community who sees this as a way to differentiate their community and transform the whole experience of activity programming, therapy programming, group engagement and individual engagement.
It’s so important for me to change the perception of what people can do who are living with dementia, and the joy that they can still have and the engagement that they can still have if they’re connected to what’s meaningful for them. It’s so meaningful to see how people, even in the far later stages of dementia, can still feel joy through engagement technology. As I get older, make it really easy for me to get the things I want, and I’ll have joy. That can get so lost in, I think, just trying to care for people and feed people and bathe people. Their spirit’s left out of the equation sometimes. That’s what we try to fill in.
You have said that you think about technology-enabled engagement in senior living in three groups. On one end are the tech-savvy people, and on the other are those who want nothing to do with tech. But there’s a big group in the middle who are on the fence, and the necessity of technology during the pandemic is what flipped them to the other side of the fence, to your side. What sorts of stories did you hear about that middle group in 2020?
York: I have heard thousands and thousands of stories along those lines. All of a sudden, when technology became the only way that seniors could communicate with their grandkids, they would go through the pain, for lack of a better word, of trying to learn new technology. From an iN2L standpoint, we did a remarkable job of making the tablets easier to use, especially on the video chat side of things. You could just touch the picture of your granddaughter, and it sends a text to her phone, and she just clicks the link on her phone, and she’s looking at her grandmother and talking to her.
COVID brought a sea change in resident interest. A lot of this stuff has nothing to do with age. I think once any of us figure out a technology application that we’re reluctant to embrace, it becomes part of our MO. And then they just keep doing it. It was fascinating for me to see both on an individual basis but also just on a collective basis how that reluctance really did change throughout 2020.
What are the other impacts on senior housing of that increased tech adoption among residents?
York: I think that the biggest driver for all of this stuff is occupancy. Not to be crass about it but these organizations have to run their own businesses. Both of my parents are gone but if I was choosing a place for my mom or dad, the first question I would ask a provider right now would be, even if they’re shut down and family members can’t come in, how can I communicate with my loved one?
Communication technology is no longer a luxury. I think that it’s going to be a regular demand that operators have to address, in case there is any kind of incident that would make it difficult for families to come in. You can use the word “perk,” but I think it’s becoming a must-have option driven by the families, and that speaks louder than anything else when the families start demanding it.
We’ve seen that 60% of leaders believe that engagement technology is more important than before the pandemic, while 20% place at least a medium priority on acquiring engagement technology. The senior living world, they do watch what their friends around the corner are doing. It’s not a novelty anymore.
What are the most interesting ways in which operators are innovating around technology-enabled engagement?
York: The first way is maybe not as interesting, but we’re finally seeing people start to put money into a real solid network to be able to allow a lot of different people to be online at the same time. The history of a lot of these communities is that they have a couple of decent Wi-Fi hotspots but nothing that would go out into people’s rooms. All of a sudden now, you see people making solid investments on a backbone of infrastructure that enhances the resident experience.
We see all this virtual travel, virtual spirituality, people being able to tap into the church that they went to 70 years ago that’s four states away. People are tapping into music, into travel. I just think that you get hooked. Video calls with family members are somewhat addictive. And with the pandemic, it’s finally starting to look like there’s light at the end of the tunnel.
Part of the challenge around technology-enabled engagement is getting people what they want yet in an easy way. What is iN2L doing to address that evolution?
York: It’s not a new thing on our end. We’ve been doing this for certainly the last 10 or 15 years. It’s just that the technology has finally caught up to the vision. We’re now wired to stay connected and we’re wired to try to stay relevant. We want what’s interesting to us.
Ever since I was a teenager in the 1970s, I was a Bruce Springsteen guy. That didn’t change when I was 25 or 35 or 50, or now 62. If I’m in a community, I want to make it easy to get Springsteen. I don’t want to be told, “You’re going to really like The Carpenters. I think you should really crank up the ‘I’m on top of the world, looking down on creation’ videos.”
You’re dealing with a population that is certainly in different places cognitively. When you make technology easy to use, it transcends everything. It’s not condescending at all. Making it easy is just making it easy. If I’m in a community, I just would touch a picture on my tablet and then for me, it would be video clips of my daughter’s singing. It would be Springsteen. It would be The Wall Street Journal. It would be the Nebraska Cornhuskers, and probably be a little European travel.
We all have our hot buttons and as the years go by, iN2L becomes a content company as much as anything else. We deliver the ability to curate that content to match not only the person’s interests, but where they are cognitively.
How is iN2L working to flip the needle on how people perceive senior living residents and the joy that they still have in their life?
York: Again, it’s not like, “Now I’m a senior living resident so treat me differently.” It’s like you’re in a different place in your life but you still have the same interests and desires that you had before. You just have to deal with the realities of aging. For me personally, I think aging is awesome. [Laughs.] I was pretty stressed out when I was in my late 40s, early 50s, iN2L just flailing away — and we were successful then. I would take the perspective and lack of stress that comes with age over being younger again any day, being content to do just what I want to do, what interests me. I think that is what we try to do as a company: keep making life fun and relevant.
2020 was a rough year but there’s reason ahead for hope, what makes you hopeful about senior living in 2021?
York: I’ve always been frustrated at the reluctance to change that has been a part of senior living. I completely understand it because you’re dealing with people’s lives. If you make a mistake here, the ramifications are enormous, whether it’s a person’s health or lawsuits. There are a million reasons you don’t want to do something wrong.
But I’m an optimist by nature. Once you’ve kind of jumped off the cliff and moved forward, you don’t go back. It is so cool to imagine what this is all going to be like in a year or two years, much less five years. I’m completely bullish on what we’re doing, and where society is going and just senior living’s openness to try new things that they historically haven’t been.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
iN2L is the leader in person-centered engagement technology. To learn more about how iN2L can help your residents experience joy through technology, visit iN2L.com.
The Voices Series is a sponsored content program featuring leading executives discussing trends, topics and more — shaping their industry in a question-and-answer format. For more information on Voices, please contact email@example.com.