In the years before the pandemic, the senior living industry was slow on the draw with regard to the use of new technology. But the challenges of the last three years have led to big tech advances in areas including automation and telehealth — and operators are just getting started.
Some of the biggest recent leaps and bounds in technology use have been seen through the use of artificial intelligence, with language processing programs such as ChatGPT and Google’s Bard as among the most significant, according to Nick Patel, president of ThriveWell Tech, the tech subsidiary that Asbury Communities launched in 2021.
“I was a little surprised at how fast they took,” he said. “I think there is a very big and viable potential to layer that on top of data.”
As the baby boomers loom large over the senior living industry, many are sure to bring with them preferences for new technology or devices. Operators including Maplewood Senior Living, Atria Senior Living and United Church Homes are catering to their whims, both by offering what residents want out of new tech and building out community infrastructure for handling it.
At the same time, they are using technology in new ways to improve resident satisfaction and care. And all the while, they are dealing with the struggles of implementing and using new technology.
Improvements through data
One of the buzziest topics in senior living tech in recent years has been artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. Though “AI” is often used these days as a stand-in for language processing like the kind ChatGPT can generate, the term encompasses many different functions in senior living.
One primary use for AI in senior living is data examination and pattern recognition. Maplewood Senior Living uses “Augi,” a tech platform developed with Inspiren, Inc.
Augi uses data from in-room sensors and camera technology to passively monitor memory care residents, according to Brian Geyser, chief clinical officer and vice president of clinical information and population health.
“This lets us know the status of that resident in real time, and therefore allows us to respond based on what is going on with the resident, not [just] a random safety check,” Geyser said.
Maplewood Senior Living first piloted Augi in its Inspir community in New York City with a test of 33 residents over the period of six months. The results were “very positive,” showing that the use of Augi had a meaningful impact on the rate of those residents’ falls. So the platform was expanded to an additional 30 units inside the community, and later on, an 84-unit memory care community in Connecticut.
“We are going to be slowly rolling out this type of technology across all of our memory care units,” Geyser said.
In general, other senior living operators are also beginning to leverage AI in order to better examine data, and all signs are pointing toward utilizing it to better analyze information, Patel said.
“What I see happening is they are going to be able to just leverage AI straight on top of data and ask natural language questions,” Patel said.
For example, in the near future, senior living community leaders could use a variety of data points — such as motion sensing and meal attendance — to determine “red flags in the medical clinical system.” While senior living operators already have the ability to collect much of this information, the use of AI would build upon it by adding a layer of analysis, Patel said, allowing for better decision-making from executive directors.
Additionally, some operators are leveraging AI to help drive community engagement in their communities. Atria has been utilizing AI in combination with Amazon Alexa smart devices for a variety of uses, such as being able to display resident birthdays, resident pairings when they first move into a community and sending out notifications regarding events.
Atria was an early adopter of Amazon Alexa use by working with Amazon’s Alexa Smart Properties offering, which gave the Louiseville, Kentucky-based company the ability to better deploy and manage the voice technology at scale.
While Atria is also utilizing AI for research purposes, it is also combining it with what residents are already more accustomed to.
“We have been adding to the back end of the Alexas as we learn new things that residents want to do,” Chris Nall, chief technology officer at Atria, said.
Geyser also believes that eventually AI can be used to streamline tasks such as policy developments, programmatic best practices and even things such as writing job descriptions and idea generation.
“We are all kind of dabbling in that to see how the AI can help us expand our thinking and make us more efficient in doing these rote tasks,” he said.
Leveraging technology to aid staffing
A driving force in the rapid rise of technology advancement for the senior housing industry over the past six months has been the need to relieve some of the pressure caused by the industry’s labor challenges.
Geyser believes the way Maplewood Senior Living is utilizing AI will become the standard for memory care staffing moving forward.
“Staff can’t be in five or 10 places at one time,” he said. “But with these technologies, they theoretically can be. The AI is monitoring 24/7 … and it notifies us if there is an issue, so that makes us more effective and efficient.”
United Church Homes, which focuses on affordable housing and middle market assisted living and skilled nursing communities, uses technology in a largely people-focused way, such as fall detection and staffing scheduling assistance, according to Michael Hughes, senior executive vice president and chief transformation and innovation officer.
Alongside smart device usage, is robot usage in areas such as dining, according to Patel. He provided an example of a dining venue that typically utilizes eight staff members to function could potentially be reduced to three staff members and two robots.
“We have seen that go into production, and those cost savings are either passed back to the remaining staff so they are better compensated or are used to solve other problems on the campus,” Patel said.
Indeed, some companies have begun implementing Servis from Bear Robotics to bus food from the kitchen to residents’ tables. And that is potentially just the beginning for how robots can be used in the industry.
There is also a social aspect of robot usage, according to Sheri Rose, CEO of Thrive Innovation Center, who has seen their usage increase to stave off loneliness both with seniors aging in place and those within senior housing communities.
Rose noted she has been seeing a spike in smart device usage, ranging from tablets, Amazon Alexas and smart toilets, all which aim to aid residents and make it easier to bring in staff members in a less intrusive manner.
Even without robots or AI, solutions like voice communication have been utilized to help staff members through the automation for events and community activities, according to Nall. Rather than having to print out and distribute flyers for activities, staff can create content and push it out digitally.
“We are going to continue to augment labor by putting more information on these devices so our staff can really focus on the resident interactions,” Nall said.
Struggles with implementing technology
While technology has been surging in development and implementation over the past year, it is not without its pain points. Two common issues are getting the various systems that have been put into place to work under a cohesive platform, and at times new technology has been a hassle for staff to implement.
Hughes noted a challenge at United Church Homes is how new technology disrupts the workflow for people working there and solutions that are not uniform.
“Let’s say I were to put communication technology in 20% of my residents’ rooms, it would absolutely be a non-starter because my staff has to do double work,” he said.
There is also the initial cost of piloting new technology, Rose said, alongside a limited staff able to learn and operate the technology in question.
“It is kind of a risk when you are trying to pilot technologies and then looking into how they can integrate into your current workflows,” Rose said.
The number of systems available is also currently leading to fragmentation within operating systems, and makes it difficult when they do not communicate with each other, Geyser said.
There is also the issue of the cost of data collection, which Patel said is very expensive, as analysts need to be hired to interpret the data and know what questions to ask to get the proper results from the data.
“You don’t want to have to spend days or weeks waiting for somebody to compile a report,” he said.
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