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Change is coming to the retirement community industry, and technology is at the heart of it

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Monitoring programs are one use of technology that has the potential to reshape senior communities. This motion sensor is from Healthsense, which offers programs that track normal health and wellness indicators and prompt action for situations ranging from falls to increased bathroom use. Photo submitted/Healthsense
Monitoring programs are one use of technology that has the potential to reshape senior communities. This motion sensor is from Healthsense, which offers programs that track normal health and wellness indicators and prompt action for situations ranging from falls to increased bathroom use. Photo submitted/Healthsense

The digital age is hitting retirement communities, and it's hitting them hard.

"If you don't as an organization embrace technology, you'll be obsolete at some point in the next several years," says Matt Oathout, executive director of Luther Acres in Lititz. "It's no longer optional, it's no longer trendy. Automating and making that commitment to technology has to be a priority for any organization that wants to be here 10 to 15 years down the road."

It's a big and expensive shift but necessary, industry experts say. And ultimately what the communities must prepare for is not so much an enhancement as a transformation.

"The whole field of providing services to seniors is changing rapidly," says Ron Barth, president and CEO of LeadingAge PA, a trade association representing nonprofits that provide housing, health care and community services to the elderly.

On the medical side, retirement communities will face some of the same electronic health record requirements that hospitals are currently dealing with — as well as the same pressures to be part of a collaborative care network. They're also seeing people spend less time in their nursing care programs, as emphasis in right-sizing care increases.

"The average length of stay in a nursing facility in PA now is less than six months. Fifty years ago, we would have probably been talking six years," says Barth. "While many of our members still have a nursing facility component, it's mostly rehab and perhaps end of life for seriously ill or injured."

On the labor side, Barth says, particularly in the case of the baby boomers, there are increasingly "a lot of old people without a lot of young people coming up behind them to take care of them."

And on the marketing side, seniors and their families are embracing technology and expecting to be able to use their electronic devices in retirement communities.

Varsity Branding, an agency based in Lower Paxton Township that specializes in marketing for what it terms the mature market, twice sent a researcher to spend a month in a retirement community. The first was in 2007 and, after the second in 2012, Varsity reported that "Personal technology is now a part of daily life in today's CCRC (continuing care retirement community), and in the course of five years, has moved from the administrative office into the hands of the residents."

However, Varsity reports, many retirement communities are operating in a dated infrastructure, with limited Wi-Fi being a common issue. Access points are often confined to common areas or certain living units or, in some cases, nonexistent.

"I'd like to tell you that in a couple of years this campus would be a wireless mesh network," says Oathout. Luther Acres has been working on Wi-Fi for a couple of years and still has a way to go before achieving the campuswide goal: "For cottages or walkways, with the outdoor repeaters, that gets expensive."

Although prices have come down as technology has become more pervasive, none of it is cheap. But, Oathout says, in some cases Luther Acres is springing for a medical-grade wireless system because it expects programs using the system to be so vital to its future.

"It is a big pill to swallow, but you have to do it," Oathout says.

Luther Acres will introduce two of those programs in coming months. One, from Healthsense, is focused on aging in place. It's scalable, Oathout says, from a simple pendant that can be used to request help, to sophisticated systems with motion and contact sensors and analytics that can prompt, say, a check for a urinary tract infection if bathroom usage spikes.

"If you're faced with personal care, with a couple of these items, maybe you get eight months' more independence in your apartment," Oathout says.

The other program, from Touchtown, will use tablet computers and apps to expedite communication between administrators and residents. Uses could encompass everything from alerts to daily check-ins to menus.

"Our phone directory, it's outdated the day after we do that. It's printing, it's folding. If it could just be updated seamlessly in digital, we've eliminated all that extra waste," Oathout says. The goal is "to allow staff time to focus on what's important, the physical interaction, and less on the administrative burden of checking lists."

Jarrod Leo is vice president of MHS Consulting, which is part of Mennonite Health Services Alliance.

"I think the game-changing element of it is, it could allow seniors to stay in their own residences a lot longer, which would delay them needing to enter a retirement community or assisted living services," Leo says of the technological transformation the industry faces. "Trailblazers that are out there trying to figure out how to take the next step with these monitoring services or providing these services to the general community at large."

There's little immediate return on investment on many of the new technologies, Leo says, and getting them will be a challenge for some organizations. But nevertheless, he expects that within five to seven years, the industry will have made the technological leap.

Along with the infrastructure requirements, retirement communities also need to plan to provide sufficient human support for their new offerings.

"People were relying on children or grandchildren to get on and work with them, even if they're across the country," says Derek Dunham, a strategist at Varsity Branding. Depending on how comfortable they are with the devices, seniors may want help troubleshooting or navigating updates and new features. "Confusing manuals, that's something that we heard a lot."

Some will also have physical difficulty using the devices, but the options technology offers may go a long way toward alleviating that.

"They do have adaptations for low-vision folks, text to voice, different options of text to voice," Oathout says. "Senior living is not what it used to be."

Heather Stauffer

Heather Stauffer

Heather Stauffer covers Lancaster County, nonprofits, education and health care. Have a tip or question for her? Email her at heathers@cpbj.com. Follow her on Twitter, @StaufferCPBJ.

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