A ‘Digital Ceiling’ Can Mirror Smart Home Experience

by Jeff Shaw

As IoT technology becomes a bigger part of seniors’ lifestyles, property owners look for strategies to match expectations.

By Dwight Stewart and Cliff White

There’s no question technology will change most everything the industry knows about building and operating senior living spaces. The question is: How fast will it happen? 

Technology evolution is exponential, and the rapid advancement of lifestyle Internet of Things (IoT) is a great example of how quickly people are willing to incorporate new devices and systems into their lives. 

Sixty-five percent of Americans now own at least one smart home product, and experts predict that number will soar to 15 by 2030. Today, more than 70 percent of people over age 60 own a smart TV; nearly 40 percent own smart speakers; about 30 percent own video doorbells.  The AARP found 20 percent of U.S. adults over age 70 own at least one wearable. 

No doubt the ubiquity of home automation and lifestyle IoT will impact attitudes, behaviors and preferences around seniors housing. It may increase the average age of prospective residents. 

Before the pandemic, aging adults wanted to stay in their homes longer. Now, accumulated equity and the pandemic-era “nesting” trend may be making it even more enticing to age in place. Home renovation spending grew 15 percent in the last year, and 52 percent of those renovating homeowners were baby boomers. Notably, more of 2020’s remodeling boomers purchased smart-technology products than the previous year, indicating a steady rise in demand for the smart home experience among older Americans. 

Creating the smart home experience

Against this backdrop, it’s easy to see why savvy seniors housing owners are hard at work developing strategies for mirroring the smart home experience within their facilities. But there’s an essential component to this planning that can’t be missed. As owners prepare to either build or renovate properties for a tech-enabled tomorrow, they must have a laser focus on future-proofing today. 

Granted, that’s a tall order. It’s nearly impossible to anticipate what the IoT universe will bring next. However, incorporating the emerging concept of the digital ceiling is quickly becoming a best practice toward minimizing the disruption of break-neck innovation. 

A digital ceiling leverages an intelligent technology platform to unite several of a facility’s networks, from HVAC and lighting to sensors and access controls. What does this have to do with future-proofing? In a word, everything. 

Powered by open-protocol software, a digital ceiling is fully extensible, allowing for the simple and rapid addition of new functionality. It’s a strategy our team is deploying right now, as we build out a new independent living project in Huntsville, Alabama.

How to power the digital ceiling

The digital infrastructure within the Huntsville property specifically is supported by an innovative power delivery system known as power-over-ethernet (PoE) technology. Many people recognize PoE cable as the thick blue cord hotels offered guests for laptop connectivity back in the good-old wired days before Wi-Fi ubiquity. 

What’s special about PoE versus other forms of low-voltage wiring is that PoE delivers data alongside power, making it the ideal system for gaining the most we can from IoT devices. PoE injects a lot of flexibility into our environments, which is hugely necessary if we want to capture the care-improving potential of rapidly advancing, data-driven devices. 

Think of the personal wearables market. In under a decade, these devices have evolved from basic pedometers to Internet-enabled gadgets that capture heartrate, calories, sleep time, steps and oxygen saturation.

Our industry, like many others, often struggles to harness data and insights from devices like wearables, sensors and other systems within our environments. PoE and the digital ceiling it powers gives us the flexibility to quickly adapt to changing devices and metrics and provide an environment where data becomes information to ultimately deliver better experiences. 

The app-enabled experience

Those experiences include helping residents, particularly those who struggle with forgetfulness or memory loss, more easily negotiate their spaces and control their environments. Someone who forgets to shut out the lights before getting into bed can do so from an app on the bedside table. A resident who doesn’t remember to lock the door after leaving the facility can complete the task from the very same app. If configured with permissions, family members can have a line of sight into their loved one’s environments via app, as well. 

Importantly, IoT-enabled experiences are not limited to residents and their families. The digital ceiling benefits staff, as well. 

Consider an orderly who is able to configure alerts anytime a fall is detected in the facility. Or a nurse who is trying to locate a resident to deliver medication. Simply by logging into a mobile asset tracking app, the nurse can easily find the resident, getting back to caring for other patients faster. Maintenance employees can set water-on-floor notifications; building managers can handle important tasks remotely, such as engaging locks or turning lights on and off. Other digital ceiling use cases that benefit staff and residents alike include things HVAC automation, circadian rhythm lighting and intelligent panic buttons.

Making the day-to-day simpler for staff and smoother for the residents they serve may help attract and retain talent — a business imperative that continues to plague the industry. Nearly three-fourths of respondents to a 2021 American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living (AHCA/NCAL) survey indicated that their workforce situation has worsened compared to 2020. Much of this is due to the fact that COVID-19 risk mitigation strategies have greatly increased the number of tasks a seniors housing staffer must complete on a given day. 

Using technology to both automate routine tasks and reduce the complexities of more nuanced ones is one way to ease the increased workload. The strategy also has the potential to attract younger segments of the working population, such as Gen Z and millennial nurses, managers and other digital native employees.

The best technology brings out the best in people

The beauty of smart-building technology is its emphasis on the human experience. Intelligent seniors housing properties facilitate residents’ well-being while offering incredible boosts in productivity for those delivering care. 

Although there are certainly cost-reducing and sustainability benefits to the low-voltage power of a digital ceiling, the most compelling gains come in the form of increased time. For seniors housing staff, this means more time for resident care, but also for themselves to take a much-needed breather or bonding time with other colleagues. 

The elder-care community has been through one of the roughest times in recent history, and plenty of signs indicate the road ahead may be just as bumpy. We owe it to ourselves and the people we serve to grab ahold of fast-moving technology for the betterment of everyone’s experience.  

Dwight Stewart is founder and chief technology officer of smart technology firm Igor Inc., based in Des Moines, Iowa. Cliff White is president of Cottage Senior Living Inc. and managing member of Innoviv LLC in Huntsville, Alabama.

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