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How AI and New Technologies Are Leading the Way for the Senior Living Revolution

The senior living industry is on the brink of a technology revolution.

That may sound dramatic, but it’s not an overstatement: healthcare organizations as a whole have been among the slowest to adopt new technology, and unlike other branches of the industry, senior living has not historically been pushed by its customer base to adopt a better tech.

But the tides are turning. As technology companies recognize the huge potential to transform the $740 billion senior care market and tech-savvy boomers enter retirement in growing numbers, the stage is set for a total industry revamp.

Here’s a look at the technologies with the biggest roles to play in the senior living industry.

Telehealth: The Great Equalizer

More than eight months into the COVID-19 pandemic, telehealth hardly seems like a “new” technology. But adoption among senior living communities before March was spotty at best. Most operators thought that the tech wasn’t worthwhile because residents valued the experience of visiting a doctor in person too much to opt for a digital replacement.

Since the start of the pandemic, that thinking has flipped: 46 percent of US consumers are now using telehealth services, up from just 11 percent in 2019. In the senior living industry specifically, providers have seen adoption skyrocket: Amwell reported 350 percent growth for its nursing home telehealth solution this year, and Medici saw a 1,800 percent increase in provider registration in April alone.

This large-scale adoption has revealed many benefits of telehealth services.

Chief among them is accessibility. Both the most mobile seniors and the least have greater access to medical care with telehealth. Whether you’re traveling the world or unable to easily leave your bed, your life is better when you can talk to your doctor via tablet.

Staff, too, are benefitting. Because they’re often the ones helping residents navigate doctors’ visits (especially in memory care and assisted living communities), telehealth offers serious time savings: rather than coordinating rides and ensuring residents have someone to wait with them at doctors’ offices, they can simply make sure residents have the right tech setup in their room.

Telehealth: The Future of Health Care

Telehealth applications for mental health care are particularly compelling, as we’ve seen during the pandemic.

And then there’s the fact that telehealth can prevent the accidental disease transmission that might otherwise happen as patients cross paths in a doctor’s office. While some visits must still take place in a doctor’s office, of course, it’s clear that the potential for telehealth to improve seniors’ overall wellness is substantial.

The next phase of development here will involve improving the technology we’re using today. Future telehealth platforms will be HIPAA compliant and will integrate more easily with the systems senior living communities already use, including EHRs and calendar systems. Let’s explore what that might look like.

IoT: The Data Unifier

Better tech has been improving discrete aspects of senior living for years now. The big hurdle most senior living communities face now is unifying their many siloed systems – EHRs, for example, that don’t talk to a calendar system or medical records systems.

That’s a problem. Senior care providers can only deliver on wellness to the extent that they’re able to get a complete view of their residents and make decisions based on the whole person. This is what family members do when taking care of aging relatives at home – they know these people well enough to intuit when a change of behavior needs medical attention, which can keep small problems from becoming big.

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Internet of Things (IoT) technology makes it possible for senior living communities to deliver that kind of attentive care at scale.

Because IoT devices can pull data from dozens of sources and send it to a central location, they make it possible for care teams to get a 360-degree view of every resident in a community, thus scaling the kind of hyper-personalized care everyone wants for their loved ones.

Consider, as an example, touchless thermometers, which measure people’s temperature as they pass through various points in a senior living community and send that data to a database.

When the data signals a temperature change, care teams can investigate immediately – potentially transformative in preventing outbreaks in a pandemic setting.

But there are broader applications, as well. A temperature change might, for instance, signal that a senior is dehydrated. A care team that addresses that problem right away can prevent it from worsening and causing, say, a fall.

Another potential cause of temperature changes: medication. With IoT temperature data on hand, a physician can review a resident’s medications and adjust as necessary.

If it sounds like I’m leaving out a crucial step in how IoT data becomes medical care, that’s because I haven’t yet mentioned AI. So let’s take a look at how artificial intelligence helps care providers make sense of IoT data.

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AI: The Source of Insights for Senior Living Industry

The promise of Big Data has long been better insights, but data alone won’t do the trick. We need AI to compile data from multiple sources and run it through algorithms to make sense of it all.

The danger for senior living communities investing in IoT without AI behind it is that they end up drowning in data without doing any better at caring for their residents.

Consider again those no-touch thermometers. Their data alone wouldn’t be very useful, even in a system, say, programmed to ping CNAs every time it detected something above 99 degrees. Some people run hot, after all. Some run cold. And anyway, what’s most important to detect for most residents is a sudden change in temperature.

So let’s say Mrs. Smith, who walks around most days at a cool 97.9, clocks her normal temperature picking up the mail in the morning and again at lunch. But when she shows up for choir practice, she’s at 98.9 – a full degree higher and possibly the first sign of a problem.

An AI system that’s smart enough to learn not just “normal” but normal for each resident could alert the care team, who could pull Mrs. Smith to check the rest of her vitals.

This could help prevent spreading an infection to her fellow choir members. Or help her get the hydration she needs before. Or trigger a medication review from her doctor – because of course this data would be housed in a system connected to the EHR that tracks her current regimen.

The point is, the combined power of AI and connected systems makes it possible to detect and address problems when they’re small, which prevents lots of pain and suffering and can eliminate the need for costly care.

Already, there are companies dedicated to creating the kinds of algorithms necessary to gleaning these insights. Data from IoT devices flows to such algorithms, which return insights and alerts only when relevant. This helps staff be proactive and preventative in care and prevents the potential problem of alert fatigue, which would likely happen without the AI layer.

Voice: The Key to Adoption

Tech’s biggest promises for the senior living won’t be realized unless that tech has near-universal adoption. That’s easy for things like touchless thermometers and floor sensors, but can be harder for tech that requires seniors to engage one on one.

Take digital calendar apps. They’re enormously helpful for senior living staff, but if residents are relying on paper print-outs, communities aren’t enjoying the full potential benefit.

The solution: voice technology.

Voice assistants like Amazon’s Alexa make it easier for seniors to engage with the various tech solutions communities adopt.

Like telehealth, voice assistants are appealing to seniors with different backgrounds: older residents and those who are tech-averse like that they don’t have to learn a device to get the benefits. More tech-savvy residents are now coming to senior living with experience using voice assistants at home.

In practice, we’ve seen that communities that offer voice see higher adoption rates for this format versus any other (tablet, desktop, phone app) once residents have a chance to use it.

The most popular skills today (calendar updates, community announcements, dining menus, event sign-ups and reminders, work orders, mail status) highlight the key benefit of voice: it delivers information to residents when it’s most convenient for them.

For those with low mobility and low vision, voice makes it easier to stay tuned in to the life of the community. During a pandemic, voice means residents can stay in their rooms – and therefore stay safe – while staying connected.

The future for voice tech will only make these things better. Already, developers are working on delivering more streamlined conversations, improved workflows, better privacy and security, push notifications, and smarter responses.

For example: A resident might ask about a joint health class. If it’s not on the day’s calendar, the smart voice assistant could pull data about what other classes attendees like and suggest, for example, tai chi. The resident then gets their underlying wellness need met even when the precise query response is disappointing.

The future state of this tech is not just about providing insights but driving actions.

As voice and the other technologies I mention here get more sophisticated, they’ll be able to not just identify residents’ needs but anticipate them, thus becoming a proactive part of maintaining residents’ overall wellness.

All Tech in Service of Wellness

This piece is by no means an exhaustive exploration of the technologies transforming the senior living space. I didn’t even mention biotechnologies, VR, blockchain, or autonomous vehicles, for example.

What I’m most interested in – and what senior living leaders should be most interested in – is which technologies can best help improve wellness for senior living residents. Tech that doesn’t will prove a costly flop. But tech that delivers on the promise of making life better for residents, families, and staff is almost certainly a good bet – and definitely a sound investment.

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