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The Promise of Technology in Senior Living

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By Jack Cumming

Almost exactly six years ago, I attended the first Age Tech Conference in Pasadena. That Conference has since merged and morphed to become Aging 2.0. There is a growing fascination with technology in the senior housing industry.  

That’s not surprising since we know that technology, led by the digital revolution, has been the great disrupter of industries in these early years of the 21st century. We have seen Amazon disrupt retailing. Uber has disrupted the taxi business. Social media are disrupting political reporting. Still, senior housing has remained very much a person-to-person industry much as it was in 1980.

From Passbooks to Robotics

That technological lag is beginning to give way to new demands from a new generation of customers. Consider robots. Our initial reaction when there is talk of robots assisting with the intimate activities of daily living, is to recoil. It feels somehow less than human. We thought that way at one time about our banking lives. From my childhood, I remember the personal connection with a well-stamped savings passbook and the good feeling a child could have in making a deposit and having a teller – a person – enter that good deed into the treasured passbook.

Today passbooks are largely a thing of the past. Generations have come of age never having seen a passbook. Moreover, that human contact with a teller has also been largely superseded. Robotic tellers came into being in the late 1970s, forty years ago. Of course, we don’t now think of automatic teller machines as robots; we take them for granted, and we tend to think of robots as something alien and futuristic.

Robots, though, are likely to be as transformative for senior services as they have become for banking services. A simple robotic device to allow one person to handle a two-person lift in a nursing center is a major advance. Using robotic devices to check on people, or to assist them through the murky world of cognitive fog, etc., offers the promise of better care at lower cost and with greater respect for the continuing independence of the afflicted person.

Front Porch Center for Innovation and Wellbeing

Front Porch Center for Innovation and Wellbeing (FPCIW) is a single provider program anticipating the future. FPCIW’s sponsoring organization is Front Porch, which describes itself as “a not-for-profit ‘human serving’ organization that serves individuals and families through full-service retirement, active adult communities and affordable housing communities.”  

Although FPCIW began without resident input, there is a transition going on that is increasingly unleashing the positive creative abilities of residents to complement staff thinking. Early efforts were oriented toward residents with diminished capacity and included (1) PARO, an advanced interactive therapeutic robotic seal designed to stimulate patients with dementia, Alzheimer’s, and other cognition disorders; (2) DAKIM® brain fitness system; and (3) It’s Never 2 Late, the touchscreen video system to promote dignity through technology.

More recently, efforts have been extended to include independent residents. FPCIW has been piloting the resident support possibilities of the Amazon Alexa and similar voice activated devices. Initial indications are that such technology is surprisingly popular with residents, many of whom are otherwise resistant to technology. Most recently, FPCIW has worked with a consortium that is considering the possibilities of self-driving transportation. The goal? . . . to ensure that self-driving vehicles will be adapted to the special needs of older people as well as the needs of the general population.

Davis Park is the Center’s director. With a background in anthropology and urban planning, Mr. Park focuses on the people side of technology to enhance the lives of individuals. Kari Olson is President of the Center in addition to her corporate role as Front Porch’s Chief Innovation and Technology Officer. Ms.Olson was an economics major at UCLA and she, too, emphasizes the human side of technology. FPCIW does not present itself as a developer. It is more a facilitator for the development of emerging technologies.

Technology in Senior Living

There are many firms developing technology applications targeted specifically toward senior living. Many of them are Senior Housing Forum partners. Blue Willow Systems, for instance, was founded by Vikram Devdas after the tragic loss of his father due to an undetected fall. The result: an innovative fall detection and alert system. The variety of technological solutions now coming to market can be sampled among the Senior Housing Forum partners.  

The most promising technology, though, is larger than just senior housing. Electronic Health Records (EHR) have been on the healthcare radar screen since the 1960s. It was then that a doctor named Lawrence L. Weed described a system to automate and reorganize medical records to improve patient outcomes. The concept is still evolving 50 years later with the federal government’s Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS) promoting “meaningful use” of EHR. Some technologies are quickly adopted; others take longer. The EHR effort has stalled for two primary reasons:

  1. EHR technology is largely proprietary which inhibits interconnectivity: smooth transition of patients with their records from one medical venue, say, a skilled nursing center, to another, often a hospital, remains but a dream.

  2. Many systems have been developed by technologists for doctors more than they are developed with doctors.  

The history of technology shows that voluntary adoption of any emerging technology occurs only as prospective users perceive the benefit. Think of how a car driving past must have look to people on horseback. Yet, people still handwrite notes.

The ultimate technological dream of integrated technologies smoothly working together to improve the lives of older people while extending affordability remains in its infancy. It will take the efforts of entrepreneurs, and a large capital investment, to bring that dream into reality.

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