Senior Housing Developers Drive Innovation, Costs By Upping Tech Game
Senior housing hasn't traditionally been viewed as a hotbed for new technology. That is changing, especially in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, with benefits and consequences alike for both developers and users.
As technology grows more prevalent and more intricate — such as interactive communication tools and health monitoring systems — it also has the potential to drive up operating costs that are already top of mind for industry players, senior housing experts warn.
However, investing in new tech is just one in a basket of increasing costs for developers and operators as of late.
During the pandemic, when many properties were essentially cut off from in-person visits by relatives and friends, staying connected via communications tech increased dramatically. Residents adapted quickly to the new reality.
A vast majority (89%) of owners and operators surveyed by MatrixCare and Senior Housing News between May and July 2021 said that they have "absolutely" or "somewhat" seen residents adopt technology as a means of staying connected than they did before the pandemic.
“If there’s a silver lining from the pandemic, it’s that senior care organizations are prioritizing tech adoption in 2021 and beyond,” CDW Healthcare Business Development Strategist Jessica Longly, told Senior Housing News.
Front and center of the tech infusion into senior housing is the communications systems that residents can interact with, senior housing designers and developers say.
"The goal is for seniors to be tech-savvy," said MBH Architects Project Manager Tammy Ng, who is involved in the nonprofit Vivalon's development Vivalon Rafael, a senior affordable housing and social service project in San Rafael, California, that includes the Dennis and Susan Gilardi Center for Healthy Aging.
"We try to keep our technology use simple and efficient by focusing on the basics: large flat screens for visibility, ample outlets and WiFi connections."
At the reception desk, check-in devices allow staff to account for residents and visitors who have signed up for events, classes and physical therapy or doctor appointments. As technology is introduced to seniors, Vivalon has also provided a computer lab, allowing seniors to learn the latest systems, Ng said.
Other forms of tech are entering the senior housing ecosystem as well. That includes sensors that detect falls and send alerts to staff, services that identify where residents are at any given time, systems that track valuable medical equipment, and the automation of thermostats and locks, monitored via wireless networks.
For instance, Fathom AI provides a thin wearable sensor platform for collecting and analyzing motion data. Other such companies include Conscious Labs, which specializes in noninvasive brain-sensing technology for head wearables, and Nectarine Health, a wearable tech company targeting seniors.
Tradition Senior Living CEO Jonathan Perlman Sr. told Bisnow he has worked with CarePredict, a WiFi-based emergency response system, in his developments. Seniors wear a sensor-laden device on their dominant wrist to track movements and other environmental factors, which can identify negative sleeping, bathing or eating patterns and stop problems before they occur.
"That gets away from the old response system, typically just a pull cord on a wall, fixed in a bathroom or bedroom," said Perlman, who is based in Dallas and has been involved in the development and management of nine senior housing projects encompassing more than 1,800 units.
Do residents object to this kind of sensor-based monitoring? On the whole, that's not the case, said Rocky Berg, a principal with the firm three living architecture.
"It's amazing how the bar is dropping in terms of people willing to accept it, as opposed to thinking it's Big Brother looking at them," Berg said. "The residents and families are generally OK with it, being able to know how mom is doing, and being able to communicate with her easily."
As for entertainment tech for senior residents, Berg said, virtual reality is up-and-coming, namely systems that don't require headsets, but rather immersive small theaters.
"We haven't used these systems yet, but I did see a presentation [of a Patriots parade] celebrating their Super Bowl win at community whose members couldn't go to the actual parade," Berg said. "It was presented in such a way that we had an all-around experience."
Other unique tech amenities finding their way into senior housing combine entertainment and healthcare, with companies such as GrandCare and It’s Never 2 Late providing tablet-based programs for stimulating memory and cognition for memory care patients. For example, the GeriJoy Companion uses pet avatars to engage residents with dementia, while GreyMatters is an interactive life storybook app that uses visual reminiscences paired with music and games.
Developers and operators are questioning what this influx of tech means for the already expensive cost of senior housing.
The experts Bisnow spoke with said that newer tech generally fits within existing budgets — so far, anyway — and isn't a huge share of development or operating costs. They also cautioned that like most real estate, properties are highly individual, with some likely to experience higher-than-anticipated tech costs, especially for higher-end projects located in dense cities.
On that end, senior housing can be stratospheric in cost. A high-rise San Francisco project, dubbed Coterie Cathedral Hill, is one such example. The 208-unit project by Related and Atria Senior Living is slated to open next year with rents starting at $8K a month and topping out at $27K a month.
Residents of the property will enjoy an array of expensive amenities, such as a movie theater, yoga studios, rooftop gardens, heated pools and chefs on call 24/7 to whip up gourmet meals.
Apart from skilled nursing facilities, few senior housing project reach those costs.
The median annual cost at U.S. assisted living facilities in 2020 was $51,600, insurance giant Genworth reports, up nearly 80% compared with 2004. A room in a skilled-care facility costs more than twice that much, and has seen similar exponential growth in the 21st century.
Genworth posits that a number of factors have contributed to rate increases, such as labor shortages and resultant wage pressure, personal protective equipment costs, regulatory changes like updated Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, and strong demand for product in recent years.
Future technology investments at these projects would only add to those growing costs, but that hasn't kept owners and operators from spending more on tech.
In a survey of 250 senior housing participants, 80% increased their tech spending last year as a result of the pandemic, according to Senior Housing News and health tech firm Philips. Those increases include an investment in resident monitoring, contact tracing, telehealth and virtual tours. At the time, they also anticipated spending more this year.
These costs vary, Berg said, with infrastructure upgrades "related to adopting more robust wireless systems and extenders will be minimal, since these are replacing hard-wired systems that were already part of the equation," he said.
On the other hand, upgrading to more sophisticated HVAC filtering systems, smarter lighting controls, enhanced audio quality, or monitoring systems will represent higher added costs, Berg said. Installing new tech in newer buildings tends to be less expensive than retrofitting older ones, he added.
These costs will be passed on to residents, though the level of which varies on a project basis.
"What residents will see are improvements and opt-in personalized experiences within the residences," Berg said. "The infrastructure upgrades give residents the freedom to choose smarter lighting, thermostat controls, entertainment systems and appliances. These do cost more, and the resident can opt for the ones that will enhance their lifestyle."
Overall, for new developments, most of the new tech is well-priced and works within a budget, Perlman said. Some projects might not even see noticeable cost increases, according to Ng.
"An architect who works within a client's budget constraints can carefully select the highly functional technology based on the client's budget," Ng said. "So the cost of development doesn't bump up that much.”