By Jack Cumming

Technology offers senior living the promise to optimize workforce potential and improve mission fulfillment. It’s good business. It requires provider technology executives with broad judgment. The pandemic taught businesses how to make do with less. Now is the time to take that frugality mindset and turn it around to spur growth.

The Challenge

Recently, Seth Godin blogged, “It’s not unpatriotic or disloyal to talk about how something could be improved. Instead, when we care enough to say, ‘could be better,’ we’re putting ourselves on the hook to create. You need to care enough to describe an improvement.” Okay, I’ll say it, senior living’s embrace of technology could be accelerated and improved. There you have it.

How many providers have a technology vision and forward-action plan? We often find executives who wait for vendor sales staff to contact them. They expect the vendors to do the innovating and to convince them of the benefits of the vendor’s offering. That has led to a sluggish, incremental approach that overlooks the full potential that imagination can provide.

Personally, I am a person who worked in one of the first industries to embrace technology — life and health insurance — reflecting the vast amount of record-keeping that the industry required. I started in 1958, so I’ve been blessed to have lived through the best years of the technological revolution. It’s stunning to see how little of that revolution has touched senior living.

A Promising Technology

Let me share the value of an emerging technology that I love and that has easy application to senior living. My wife and I cruise with Princess Cruises, which now has MedallionClass on all its ships. There are two sides to it. One is reliable high-speed internet delivered by medium Earth-orbit satellites. The other is a simple coin-sized device worn by everyone on board.

Approach your door with your medallion on your person, and the door is automatically unlocked, ready for entry, much like a modern automobile. The medallion knows where you are on the ship at all times, so services can be delivered as needed or desired. The medallion also automatically tracks billing information, making transactions effortless both for passengers and crew.

It’s not difficult to imagine how valuable that could be in senior living, where some tracking systems still use decades-old pager technology. Why isn’t anyone pursuing this? Let’s hope it’s not because provider technologists only take note of what’s on display at senior living conferences. Being proactive beyond the limits of one’s industry is a way to stay at the forefront.

Vast Potential

The technology potential is vast, especially for a labor-intensive industry like senior living. That leads to the question, “Why aren’t senior living provider organizations at the forefront?” That’s a question for which boards should demand answers from CEOs. And boards ought not to accept simplistic answers.

Some CEOs may accept the assurances of CTOs (chief technology officers) that they are already leading. Treat that with great skepticism. Dig deeper. What technology has the organization initiated, or are they just buyers of vendor offerings?

If they prefer to buy than to build — i.e., if the business is vendor dependent — ask what is the ratio of vendor sales staff to development and engineering staff? What are the technical qualifications of the provider’s tech staff to judge the build or buy question? How are tech smarts balanced with broad business judgment?

A Cautionary Parallel

Think of this parallel. Retailing was labor-intensive, but Amazon disrupted the entire industry with a technology-first approach. Amazon, too, is labor-intensive, but it’s lean compared with historical retailing.

Will consumers accept technology first in senior living? The lesson from Amazon is that they will. Can existing senior living make the pivot to an entrepreneurial, tech-heavy future? The retailing precedent suggests that is unlikely.

The answer lies in leadership and culture. Walmart is still trying, but tech at Walmart is an afterthought and remains that to this day. It’s the essence of Amazon’s culture. One path is rooted in the convention. The other embraces the dawn of a bright new future.

It’s Not Difficult

A typical vision statement might read, “Reduce paper to a minimum.” If resident dining takeout orders are completed online and then printed out for completion, there’s a clear opportunity for automation. Moreover, it’s not uncommon to find that the young employees who print those orders and sort them for the kitchen staff could automate the process themselves if they were just given the incentive and allowed the initiative.

Younger employees expect widespread advanced technology. They are looking to build careers, and they know that technology is only going to become more extensive. Just as they have bright futures stretching out decades into the future, the enterprises poised for future success are those that are likewise youthfully enthusiastic about technology’s potential.

Another Example

I get excited when I stumble on something that seems so innovative that one wonders why it took so long for someone to make it happen. Think of what prospective residents in senior living would like in their new homes. They want a living-dining space. They want a sleeping space. They want a working space. And, of course, they want bathroom and food preparation spaces.

Let’s see. That’s three rooms plus the necessities and maybe a second office for an active couple. But typically, a person only uses one room at a time, so why not have one room that adapts for three purposes? Enter Ori Living, an offshoot of MIT’s Media Lab.

Inspired by the elegant practicality of Japanese paper folding, these creative geniuses have created living that seamlessly converts from living to sleeping to working, all at the touch of a button. How do they do it? With well-designed tracked, movable modules. But that’s not the point. This is so much more than a Murphy bed. Read to the end, where there’s a video link that will show you how cool this is.

Meeting a Challenge

Not long ago I had a provocative conversation with a senior living architect. Aside from his insistence on what can’t be done, he asserted that the lack of attractiveness of so many senior living units is due to the providers’ insistence on minimizing residential square footage. Perhaps advanced tech can be the answer.

High tech is increasingly popular for its own sake. No one wants to live as Grandma lived. New residents expect to find technology seamlessly integrated into senior living. Moreover, the employees now coming into senior living expect to find that technology as well. No wonder senior living is feeling a bit confronted by marketing and workforce challenges.

Solutions like the Medallion experience and multiuse Ori Living are not science fiction. They can be deployed today. Even such basics as bathrooms and toileting are being reinvented and reengineered to promote better health and independence through aging.

The Wonder of the Possible

Why isn’t senior living leading? One thing that distinguishes senior living from other industries is that there is more talk of technology than there is deployment. Of course, there are many who may disagree with that, but my general impression is that the nurturing culture of senior living tends toward being technophobic.

Let’s change that, beginning with imagining the wonder of the possible.

It’s time for a restart. Change from within is difficult and rare. Change from without, fueled by popular acceptance, is the common path of progress. Think Amazon. Can senior living be the exception?

Click here for a video intro to Ori Living.  Click here to learn more about the Medallion experience.