By Jack Cumming

The age of digitization allows a growing celebration of each consumer’s individuality. Artificial Intelligence helps create that personal relationship with consumers. Universal connectivity makes it possible. It is beginning to change how consumers approach aging. People seek self-realization. Many want to pursue their passions to find social purpose. Aging brings with it freedom for people to be themselves.

Our New Individualism

Individualism is beginning to change the face of senior living. It has the potential to reverse the fear of institutional senior living. The fear is that congregate living requires conformity and subservience. Most industry leaders protest, but popular perception matters. An outreach to embrace people where they are now, i.e. where they live, how they live, and as they want to live, is the best antidote. Our computer age makes that dream realizable.

The Nature of Insight

That is the “insight” that drives this article. You may have had the same “insight” long before me. Sometimes insight is so clear that one wonders why everyone doesn’t share the same clarity. Of course, it can be that a particular “insight” just reveals prior ignorance. Often, it turns out that many others have the same “insight” at the same time. Also, it can be that an “insight” simply lacks profundity and has long been evident to everyone else, only not to you. Thus, it’s with some humility that I share my latest “insight,” namely that the future depends on serving prospects where they are, at least initially, instead of immediately selling them on moving.

As I struggle to think through the implications for senior living of this “insight,” challenges instantly rise to the surface. Not many senior living enterprises are fully automated. Full automation requires an obsession in the technology leadership (usually the IT Department) to eliminate paper everywhere, together with its twin, seamless connectivity among modules and systems.

The Dream of Relationship

The dream is an unobtrusive digital journey that accompanies people from first awareness of your enterprise through interment. Someone is going to make that vision a reality. That breakthrough will bring the industry into a new era. We can learn much from the example of Jeff Bezos, arguably the most successful business leader of our generation. There is opportunity at every step throughout that long relationship.

Sometimes enterprises lose sight of the service-to-the-buyer relationship that elevates the customer. It’s easy for organizations to become inward-directed. With Amazon, Jeff Bezos showed that computers can keep that essential consumer relationship central. The ubiquity of computers makes it possible to achieve the ideal of serving people where and as they are and to bring them services that they want and need as they want to receive them.

COVID has shown senior living how to do this (and how not). Let’s start with that “not.” People sitting in the garden outside the window of a stricken loved one with fingers extended toward the glass of separation is not an image that anyone wants repeated. In contrast, joyful – joy-filled –  were those encounters utilizing the drop-in feature of Amazon Alexa Show devices (or its copycats) that allowed spouses, even deeply memory-impacted spouses, to connect regularly and effortlessly across regulator-imposed separation barriers.

The takeaway is that many intimate and socializing interactions can be delivered across distances. If you’re not now offering life enrichment services to people in your market area who are not yet prospects, you’re missing out. Even as in-person options return for those who are vaccinated, there is continuing opportunity in relationships built through remote connections. Extending relationships to the wider world and marketplace is an opportunity to be embraced. Moreover, those outreach services can be monetized.

Practical Observations

More insights about universal digitization:

  • We’ve long known that finance and cost accounting touch every element of a business. Digitization wraps accounting by capturing every contact and every transaction and building them into relationship enhancement and real-time management dashboards.
  • Increasingly, empowerment-and-innovation first organizations are supplanting hierarchical-approval first organizations. Real-time management dashboards allow that to be a successful approach and alert top management about when and where to intervene.
  • Digital-savvy corporations have help desks to offer technical assistance to employees. Adding resident and non-resident technical assistance can unlock the latent business opportunity universal connectivity offers.
  • Resident technical assistance upends traditional life enrichment to create a better residential and human living experience. Many life enrichment directors struggle to keep residents busy. The residents keep the Resident Technical Assistance person busy. Residents are more digitally capable than the industry mythology suggests.
  • Vendors tend to be functionally siloed and carry a heavy sales overhead. Before buying a system, analyze what it would cost to develop yourself a better system that you could then market to other operators and users.
  • Senior living tends to be staff and overhead heavy with unneeded but well-intentioned staff bloat and hierarchical redundancy. Universal connectivity and results monitoring can save money and help make senior living benefits more widely available and affordable.
  • Many of the attractions of on-campus senior living are also attractive for younger people trying to simplify their lives and to find a better life-work-family-recreation balance. They expect digital connectivity. Why limit the market through age discrimination?
  • Workers, especially younger workers, gravitate toward businesses that are technologically advanced. Moreover, technology allows businesses to better support their workers. Younger workers expect a digitally sophisticated work environment.
  • Right sizing an organization for the digital era demands the best efforts of corporate leaders. Helping redundant or task-mismatched employees to find other opportunities where they can have more satisfying careers requires caring, imaginative executive leadership. The digital age can bring about efficiencies that allow employees to earn more or to have more free time.
  • Over the long term, a welcoming, consumer-empowering organization will always outperform an enterprise-centric, profit-first organization. This is truer today than ever before since universal connectivity eliminates intermediate layers and enhances the individualization of consumer experiences. Senior living has lagged in taking advantage of this opportunity.

What We’ve Learned

My insight, which may not be that novel, is that there is a vast opportunity for senior living to harness connectivity to expand its reach much as Amazon upended retailing. Of course, Amazon itself would have the potential to expand into senior services, but it is already getting anti-trust pushback. Hence, it’s unlikely that Amazon will move in that direction unless it were to spin it off as a new, independent enterprise.

The opportunity is still there for senior living operators to reinvent themselves, adopting Amazon’s innovative spirit and rapid pace. Embracing technology with the same enthusiasm that Amazon has brought to its consumer obsession can allow a skilled entrepreneur to leapfrog today’s senior living to meet consumers where they want to be and to bring them services to make their lives fulfilling right to the very end.