LeadingAge Magazine · March-April 2017 • Volume 07 • Number 02

An observation by Sara Hamm, vice president of successful aging and health services at Lifespace Communities, sums up a challenge to providers as we approach the 3rd decade of the 21st century.

“In past years, most providers were concerned about making sure they had a bank of computer terminals in the community library for residents to use,” says Hamm. “But now we find there are so many residents that never use them because they have [their own] computers or iPhones.”

As the years go by, the technological sophistication of the seniors served by LeadingAge members is growing steadily. Pew Research Center data from 2016 shows that 64% of adults 65 and older use the Internet (twice the percentage of 10 years ago) and 51% have high-speed broadband at home. A look at year-by-year data shows uninterrupted growth in both of those numbers since 2000. In short, technology-savvy residents no longer represent just a small fraction of the people providers serve, as they did a decade ago.

On the provider side, organizations that once devoted most of their technology development to “back-end” systems—to enable electronic records or adoption of clinical devices for staff use—are now devoting more resources to offering technology-embracing residents the tools they need to get the most out of communication technology.

Responding to Resident Wishes

Lifespace Communities, an Iowa-based provider that operates 12 life plan communities in 7 states, is trying to position itself to better serve residents with high expectations and a do-it-yourself ethic.

Lifespace photo
Resident Jay Cawley holds weekly workshops on the Apple iPad
for his fellow residents at Grand Lodge at the Preserve,
Lincoln, Nebraska. Photo courtesy of Lifespace Communities.

“In several communities, the residents have formed technology councils,” says John Couture, vice president of information technology for Lifespace. “We have worked with several councils to support [their] technology needs. We have a lot of residents helping residents—if their printer’s not working or they need to upgrade software.”

Couture says he’s met a lot of residents who had careers in technology, including a few programmers. “A lot of them are more technical than I am, and they enjoy teaching other residents who are just starting to use an iPhone or to go on Facebook,” he says. “They enjoy the teaching aspect.”

The organization has ambitious plans to offer residents greater technological possibilities. The starting point, however, must be upgraded infrastructure—both technological and human.

IT administrators now report directly to Couture, rather than their individual executive directors: “2016 was spent realigning the IT team to get the right people in the right seats on the bus, and we’re now poised to develop a couple of strategic road maps,” he says. “One is our corporate solutions, everything from general ledger to specific health care solutions … to new technologies in our health centers to enhance the lives of residents, particularly those suffering from memory loss or other illnesses.”

Lifespace uses the popular Touchtown system in its communities, says Hamm, displaying menus, dining options, life enrichment programs and safety and security messages. Couture says Touchtown also offers “Community Apps,” which allow its content and features to be accessed by residents on their own tablets. Lifespace has rolled this out to a couple of its communities with plans for more.

In order to promote broader use of technology in general and use of TouchTown’s Community apps specifically, the Lifespace Foundation has begun offering Amazon Fire Tablets at 50% discounts to residents at Village on the Green in Florida and Claridge Court in Kansas, and plans to do so at all communities.

Hamm is excited about the possibilities of telemedicine as a way to make residents’ medical visits easier. In addition to typical telehealth services, residents can interact with mental health professionals in a private room or in their own apartments.

Lifespace Communities is even dipping a toe into virtual reality. Hamm says Friendship Village of South Hills near Pittsburgh, PA, is preparing to host a “dementia live experience” put on by the Pennsylvania Behavioral Health and Aging Coalition. The Coalition will set up virtual reality equipment—designed to mimic the experience of people with dementia—in 2 rooms on the Friendship Village campus for a week in May. Employees, residents and families will be encouraged to try the experience and it will be promoted as a public education event.

Senior Skype Dates

At age 87, Lorraine lives in an assisted living apartment and her beloved husband, who needs a higher level of care, lives in the building next door. Daily visits are important. They’re an effort, but they’re a priority as well.

Charlotte and her kid sister, 5 years apart at ages 90 and 85, are the best of friends. Visiting each other is essential. Though they live only a mile apart, it’s sometimes an effort to get here or there, but it‘s a priority.

Three Pillars photo
Charlotte connects with her kid sister Maggie through Skype
when the bitter Wisconsin cold prevents a personal visit.
Photo courtesy of Three Pillars Senior Living Communities.

Dennis’ independent senior apartment sits 6 states apart from his only child’s home. For this father-daughter duo, visits are a larger, planned-out effort, but they’re a priority.

And then, when life happens—sniffles and sneezes rudely intrude, or a Midwestern snowstorm gets in the way of a long-awaited flight—plans for the visit can come to a halt. Social wellbeing is stifled and spirits fizzle fast; but not any more for residents at Three Pillars Senior Living Communities, Dousman, WI, thanks to Skype video calls. When a personal visit becomes impossible for whatever reason, a phone call is nice, but it’s no substitute. Feeling disconnected can be taxing, so when this happens, we’ve learned to grab the iPad and be thankful for today’s technology.

The mission of meeting the social, physical and spiritual needs of older adults takes the form of a plethora of high-quality services—one of which is having iPads available for resident use at each building. As technology savvy has increased over the years, the iPads have seen a gradual increase in popularity for games, catching up on news, surfing Facebook, or browsing the Internet. Lately, their value for what have become lovingly known here as “Skype Dates” has skyrocketed.

The system is simple: The recreation therapist, social worker or concierge works with a resident to schedule a convenient time for the date. When it’s time, the staff member signs into the community account, helps initiate or accept the call, adjusts the tablet for an optimal experience, and steps away for the conversation to commence.

In that moment when the connection is made, when the iPads are adjusted, cameras are turned on, and loved ones catch a glimpse of each other, their whole-face-smiles and misty eyes are enough to turn anyone’s heart to a puddle of mush. For all the times we’ve wanted to throw our device out the window for not behaving how we want it to, this beautiful example of technology at work makes old frustrations vanish.

And what does it mean for the residents? When a thank you card recently arrived for the employee who helped organize a Skype Date, it was a true testament to how very special the experience is for residents and families. After a first video call experience, it’s usually talked about for days. It becomes the dinner hour conversation and word spreads enthusiastically among friends who are urged to try it for themselves. New dates and repeats are scheduled.

Insecurities about using technology are quickly shaken by the affirmation that staff is there to help them get set up, and after a few runs, a comfort level is established. Residents get used to tapping on the app icon and learn what to expect when placing a video call. Some even become independent with future calls. The way we see it, older adults who use technology in any way, especially to experience human connection, are enriched by moving forward with the times. Most importantly, a Skype Date allows the person to see their loved one’s face. They don’t care if it’s through a black handheld rectangle and it doesn’t matter to them if they don’t understand quite how it works. What they care about is seeing their loved one when they thought they wouldn’t be able to, and seeing the look in their eyes as they say “I love you.”

- Written by Kelsey Pangborn, communication strategist at Three Pillars Senior Living Communities.


Top-Level Technology on a Large Campus

Atlantic Shores Retirement Community, Virginia Beach, VA, is a resident-governed cooperative that is working to improve the technology options for residents. Its ASpire initiative offers excellent wireless connections everywhere on the 100-acre campus, and also offers bundled phone, TV and internet service. The organization’s goal is an “enterprise-grade” IT network offering connectivity, security and capabilities.

Atlantic Shores photo
Resident Jim Rosenbaum bonds with his younger friends over
their shared love of technology. Photo courtesy of Atlantic Shores
Retirement Community.

The program also includes an app, “Atlantic Shores,” that offers access to a password-protected social network site, MyCommunity. There, users can get news and information about events, an online marketplace, staff and resident directories and dining menus. Members can create profiles, link to their Facebook accounts and more. It also offers one-touch emergency dialing to the community’s gatehouse.

As in many other communities, Atlantic Shores has an active group of technology-loving residents that do a lot to help other residents get up to speed on technology.

A resident-driven group, the “Hub Club,” was formed to advise Atlantic Shores staff as it rolled out the ASpire initiative and act as technology ambassadors and teachers for other residents. It wasn’t long before the Hub Club was upgraded to the Atlantic Shores Technology Committee, which evaluates technology needs, reviews current systems and suggests improvements.

“The organization decided [it] didn’t want [the Hub Club’s] expertise to go to waste,” says resident and technology committee member Richard Sawyer. “The new technology committee interfaces with the administration and with the residents and also provides education and exposure to technology they might not always have.”

Fellow resident and committee member Frank Barrett agrees, but adds, “You’d be surprised how many people here have a deep understanding of technology.”

According to Atlantic Shores IT Systems Analyst Jamie Lockard, the committee’s official functions include the following tasks:

  • Review and suggest improvements to campus technology.
  • Report and evaluate campus technology issues and work to provide resolution.
  • Assist in creating resident interest to those residents who may be less interested in or intimidated by the new technology.
  • Work with management regarding most necessary and applicable resident needs for specific technology relative to all residents.
  • Promote cost saving initiatives, which may be fulfilled with technological implementations.
  • Provide input and feedback to assist with making decisions regarding the ongoing improvements to the website(s) and applications.

Barrett also says the committee is trying to help residents “to become a little more paperless, so if we can get people to use the electronic systems we have, it’s a more efficient and effective way of reaching out to everyone.”

Lockard offers classes for residents on many topics: Skype, Facetime, Microsoft Office applications, email functionality, access to the MyCommunity site, Roku boxes, Google, Amazon, device training, and more.

One big project under development is the installation of 2 fiber optic rings across campus which will create an internal network that will allow services such as medical alert and monitoring systems, emergency backup, emergency notifications via the phone system, and campus-wide Wi-Fi. Hard-wired connections to each villa are needed for phones and other services that require a more reliable connection than Wi-Fi.

Supporting the Needs of Residents Today and Tomorrow

“In 3-5 years, I would like us to be on the leading edge of providers as we leverage technology,” says Lifespace’s Couture. “Baby boomers want to exploit technology to its fullest, and I want to be able to support them, engage them and facilitate use of technology in all of its aspects. I’d like companies in this [technology] field to come here and ask us to pilot things. We want to be one of the first places they come to.”

- Gene Mitchell is editor of LeadingAge magazine.