LeadingAge Magazine · July-August 2018 • Volume 08 • Number 04

Design for Technology: How Innovation Is Shaping the World of Senior Living

July 18, 2018 | by Jane Sherwin

Sophisticated design, green building practices and technology are bringing greater opportunities for wellness, security, convenience and engagement to communities of older adults.

There’s little doubt that technology in all its forms is becoming essential to senior living, from independent to memory care. But the subject can be dazzling. It’s not just the high-tech communications made possible by wireless connections, the hundreds of apps and software, the tablets and sensors and voice-activated programs. LeadingAge members and their architects are looking at healthy buildings and the physical design of cottages and apartments to enable aging in place. Natural lighting and fresh air contribute to the wellness that is essential to a life lived well.

Conversations with 3 architectural firms clarify the opportunities for best use of technology. And 2 LeadingAge members share their own experience with architecture and IT, including some surprising new technology for memory care.

Technology and Green Buildings

Tye Campbell, CEO of SFCS Inc., in Roanoke, VA, says that building codes today consider the green approach as good building practice.

“Now we are working to make buildings healthy for residents, with clean and fresh air, natural light, and systems that support our natural need to be with nature,” says Campbell. Tunable lighting, for example, makes it possible to match indoor lighting to the outdoors, a known contributor to good health.

Architect Alejandro Giraldo at THW Design in Atlanta, GA, says, “When we meet green standards, the design choices for residents are generally healthier and safer, such as natural light, larger windows and more indoor-outdoor connections.”

Giraldo’s colleague, Melinda Avila-Torio, spoke of the concept of biophilia, or the human desire to connect with other forms of life. She thinks there are numerous devices and elements that can help with this that weren’t around 10 years ago, and that are now becoming less expensive.

Robert Beal, AIA, of RLPS Architects, says that the technology for sustainability will vary with location. For example, solar power is more significant in the southwest than in northern New England. And it is possible to have buildings ready for solar power when the time comes to make the investment.

Architecture for Aging in Place

Successful aging in place has as much to do with architecture as with smart technology. RLPS’s Beal says that clients are investing in a variety of devices and design solutions that make independence possible. This includes aging in place tools to facilitate reach and comfort in apartments and cottages.

Masonic Villages in central Pennsylvania has a new smart cottage full of designs for aging in place, such as low barrier showers and overhanging sinks.

“An important element in our pilot programs,” says Masonic Villages’ Patrick Sampsell, chief environmental and facilities officer, “is that all accessibility features are designed to look like upgrades with the intent of making the unit attractive to the 65 year old, but functional for the 85 year old resident.”

For more about Masonic Villages’ smart cottage, see the article, “Technology That Residents Want and Communities Need,” in this issue.

Smart Technology

Dan Godfrey, a partner at RLPS Architects, says “Low-voltage, smart technology devices are becoming commonplace in life plan communities,” and emphasized that this is happening now, not in 5 years. Many potential residents have smart devices in their current homes and expect a retirement community to support the same or better technology.

“An important element in our pilot programs is that all accessibility features are designed to look like upgrades with the intent of making the unit attractive to the 65 year old, but functional for the 85 year old resident.”

It’s helpful to consider smart technology as having 2 different functions: social connection among residents, and monitoring for early intervention to support wellness. Social connection is made possible by apps and tablets that many seniors are already familiar with. For example, a resident who tends to be isolated can be encouraged to visit the dining room with electronic transmission of the daily menu. Masonic Villages’ new K4 Connect package enables all its residents to stay connected with each other, and potentially with family.

Remote monitoring for health, (e.g., for blood pressure), is becoming even more useful and perhaps necessary, as the caregiver population tends to decrease and workforce challenges are rising, according to SFCS’s Campbell. If a resident opens the refrigerator less often, or is getting up more frequently at night, devices can communicate these indicators of behavior change and enable early intervention. Another device becoming more affordable and accepted is a mattress capable of monitoring vital signs.

Masonic Villages’ Ray Tierney, chief operating officer, says residents are more likely to accept new smart technology when it’s presented as fun and innovative, rather than as a form of telemedicine, and he thinks that so far residents seem to be enjoying the new tools. He also advises starting with small pilot projects, rather than spending years designing a massive technology changeover.

On the other hand, THW’s architects agreed that technology should not replace human contact with residents, since such personal interaction is essential for wellness. And Sampsell noted that it’s essential to pay attention to state and federal rules for reimbursement. For example, blood pressure monitoring by remote sensor may or may not meet these requirements, so direct contact may continue to be needed.

Technology for Assisted Living and Memory Care

At Plymouth Harbor in Sarasota, FL, the new Star Memory Care Residence takes full advantage of new technologies, according to Stephanie Leathers, administrator, and Brandy Burgess, social worker.

For example, the new building includes an interactive device by It’s Never 2 Late (iN2L).

“With iN2L,” says Leathers, “anyone can click on the screen to find out all the things a particular resident is interested in, and then display programs related to these. Families can continue to download a resident’s interests to the system, and, if traveling, can transmit photographs daily.” And for bridge players, the system offers 3 computerized bridge partners for those skilled players who have lost some abilities.

Managing Technology and Design

SFCS’s Campbell says it’s important to have a highly qualified IT manager on staff, and a strategic plan for technology. “Update your plan and make sure you are prepared on an annual basis.”

RLPS’s Brian Crosby, director of technology, recommends “an adaptable environment that evolves with the changing needs of each resident.” This includes both architectural features and building system upgrades, and allows for a wide range of smart devices in residential products.

“You can have great technology in old as well as in new buildings,” says SFCS’s Campbell. “There are some differences between concrete, steel, and wood structures, but they are all suitable for state of the art technology.”

Where to Go for Help

LeadingAge’s Center for Aging Services Technologies (CAST) supports users with case studies, technology selection tools, and interviews with LeadingAge members and IT vendors.

Given the complexity and rapid development of technology, the CAST site is a useful tool for scanning the whole menu of technologies. Its hands-on resources help providers plan for and adopt appropriate technologies.

Jane Sherwin is a writer who lives in Belmont, MA.