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Voices: Sarah Thomas, Executive Strategist in Aging Innovation, CEO, Delight by Design

This article is sponsored by Sentrics. In this Voices interview, Senior Housing News sits down with Sarah Thomas, Executive Strategist in Aging Innovation with Delight by Design and Advisory Council member for Sentrics, to learn how the senior housing industry is dealing with technology adoption as the tech-enabled resident population grows. Thomas explains what is driving seniors to adopt technology and how operators are capitalizing on the new opportunities associated with this trend.

Senior Housing News: What career experiences do you most draw from in your role today?

Sarah Thomas: I’m an occupational therapist, with 20 years of experience in aging, technology and human-centric design. I have always met people where they’re at and acted as a catalyst to get them where they want to go, and that can be an as individual, a product, a company or a system. I use the same process to develop products that create accessible, beautiful, delightful experiences for every age.

I have helped hundreds of startups with product development and market entry and growth. I have helped large corporations with change management and innovation strategy and technology integration. When I joined the Sentrics Advisory Council, I began looking at the customer journey, as well as the product UI and UX. I supported a market entry strategy and expansion into post-acute care. Because I led global innovation at Genesis for years and also served as Executive in Residence at Aging2.0, I have a lot of experience with product development, market development and expansion, especially in agetech. I’m excited to be on the Sentrics council.

What has driven seniors to adopt technology in greater numbers?

Thomas: We have all increased technology adoption to meet our need for communication. Whether it’s work, social, education, entertainment or resource-based, technology has enabled us to move forward under unprecedented circumstances. If you look at some of the trends around tech adoption, everyone is looking to find relief and laughter to enhance their living experience.

Consumer electronics and engagement with technology is on the rise in every age group. We’re seeing this in senior living communities across the board for the same reasons: a desire for greater connection, greater resource access and greater convenience. Many of these trends are here to stay out of consumer need and desire.

What are senior living operators doing to embrace this new focus on technology adoption and consumerism?

Thomas: Many senior living operators recognized early that they needed to provide additional access to technology to leverage resources and connect with the community. In addition to investing in hardware, they also recognized opportunities to create better efficiencies in staffing and disseminating information to residents and their families. They recognized the need for tech support, and not only were they able to deploy these technologies, but they also prepared for questions about them. They often invested in partnership solutions that provided support for these newly adopted technologies.

We’re seeing more tech concierge services, tech support hotlines and individual IT professionals in-house to support new technology adoption. Senior living operators have seen increased use of consumer technology and have supported the adoption in multiple ways.

What are the most exciting and innovative ways you’ve seen senior living operators use technology in the design of their programs, spaces and resident experiences?

Thomas: I’ve been doing this for 20 years and adoption can be slow. That hesitancy can create barriers to entry for some of these trends. Many operators resisted the technologies used by the general population because they weren’t sure how to deploy them without disrupting their workflow or changing their processes.

When change became necessary, creativity and problem-solving improved in this industry, so design thinking principles kicked in. Operators asked, “How might we improve social connectedness in a time of isolation?” They looked for solutions instead of just identifying the challenges around the deployment. With the addition of live streaming, virtual classes, telehealth visits and food delivery, they were able to move forward.

They had staffing challenges that led to use of delivery robots. Disinfecting challenges allowed the use of UV robots or UV drones — a different level of technology to enhance the living environment and resident safety. What’s exciting for me is the permanence of this adoption. We’re finally thinking differently about how to operationalize these technologies, support these technologies and make them successful in our communities.

Many communities are being challenged to support both the technology they sponsor and the technology older adults are bringing with them. What tips do you have for operators struggling to support multiple types of technologies?

Thomas: I think it’s imperative to realize this technology movement is only going to grow. It’s not temporary. We need to see better staff education and training for on-site roles. We also need better support for consumer tech needs. While that might not be in the traditional job description, staff want to be informed so they’re better able to answer questions when they come their way. Enhancing professional development in these areas and the integration of training are key.

We also need an increase in partnerships to bring educational workshops to both the staff and the residents. Whether you outsource it and have a partner to support it, or you create an in-house role, this will encourage residents and staff to feel more comfortable with the technology and tools being used. To improve outcomes and create better engagement across the organization, we need to provide additional training and support as a core competency.

What are the most vital design principles when it comes to creating technology products for older adults?

Thomas: I’m a big advocate of human-centric design. Technology really should be accessible to all. When designing products, we’re not just looking at visual appeal, but also visual accessibility, readability, adjustability, flexibility and customization. If there’s an auditory component, can the user adjust the sound or connect to a speaker or another supportive sound solution? The products should be intuitive at any age. They should be tested along the way by a variety of end-users. Is it clear for the intended use case, and is it easy to use without additional support or instruction? Is it accessible at a multi-level approach with many individuals and if not, how can the function be improved?

Sentrics does a beautiful job developing all of its products and integrating partner solutions. As it acquires more technologies, the goal is to continue that human-centric design by having a diverse advisory board and user group to enhance the product design. I’m always excited to work with companies like Sentrics because they are focused on the customer journey from start to finish. I am excited to be able to work with their products and help enhance them.

What advice can you offer to communities that wish to break the barrier of user adoption?

Thomas: It’s a shift to the mentality of trial and error. Often people are worried they’re going to break something or do something wrong. I think it’s important for us to create a safe environment for residents to play, to create, to explore and to do no wrong. We can help them realize that it’s okay to try something, to support them as they try new things, especially new technology. Apprehension around trying new solutions is mostly based in fear, so how can we eliminate that fear? If it’s technology, we can provide education or support, or we can at least provide a safe environment to try things and fail. That’s when the greatest problem solving happens.

Entering this year, no one knew fully what to expect. What has been the biggest surprise in senior housing this year, and what impact do you think that surprise will have on the industry next year?

Thomas: People in this industry are some of the most caring, dedicated and resilient people we will ever meet in life. During the pandemic, everyone around the world experienced some sort of change. They had a shift in roles. They were educating children at home. Their living arrangements shifted. Their social engagements and their social circles shrunk and changed tremendously. There was a loss of friends and family, but senior living, in many ways, became stronger. As a community and an industry, we realized people show up, and they continue to show up.

They adapt and create solutions to major challenges. They serve others and work together to bring the industry mission forward. The pandemic showed that this group of individuals is so dedicated to this space that they can emerge even stronger, despite the constant pressures, changes and assaults to the system. For me, it’s not so much a surprise, but a pleasant reminder that we’re surrounded by really great people doing great things.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Sentrics delivers a comprehensive suite of data-driven platforms that provide the insights and control to transform care from reactive to predictive. To learn more, visit sentrics.net.

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 sales@agingmedia.com.

The post Voices: Sarah Thomas, Executive Strategist in Aging Innovation, CEO, Delight by Design appeared first on Senior Housing News.

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