COVID-19 resulted in a sudden increase in demand for internet connectivity in seniors housing — catching some operators flat-footed.
By Jeff Shaw
The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on seniors housing were sudden and dramatic. We’ll likely continue to feel them for years to come.
As communities closed themselves off from the outside world to protect residents, a new challenge emerged: How do we keep our residents healthy and safe without isolating them from friends, family and entertainment? The answer came in part from the web, as operators looked to Zoom meetings, virtual events and telehealth doctor’s appointments.
But as communities relied more heavily on the internet, some found that their infrastructure wasn’t prepared for this increase in use. In many cases, what previously was an appropriate amount of internet bandwidth became woefully inadequate.
Dr. Nancy Swanger, founding director of the Granger Cobb Institute for Senior Living at Washington State University, found this out the hard way.
Her 90-year-old mother lives in an assisted living community where Wi-Fi is an optional add-on, not a built-in service. The mother, not being tech-savvy, elected to skip the internet package.
When the pandemic hit, Swanger realized her misstep.
“Had I known then what I know now, I would’ve made sure she was wired. I would’ve made sure she knew how to use FaceTime — I normally see her every day, face to face,” says Swanger. “I’ve learned a lot as an adult child through this process. Wi-Fi is one of those standard amenities that needs to be in every community.”
Swanger calls her mother every day and has provided her with picture books, but there are still no internet-connected devices in her room.
“Other than the caregivers and med techs that she sees, it’s quite lonely,” says Swanger. “Isolation and loneliness is what we’re trying to combat with socialization in seniors housing. That piece of the puzzle was reduced drastically by the pandemic.”
For communities that were unprepared for this sudden increase in need for internet connectivity, life changed quickly.
“There’s a new reality taking place in senior living,” says Craig Snelgrove, executive vice president of sales at Allbridge, a telecom services provider based in Raleigh, North Carolina. “Now more than ever communities are reconsidering their priorities. They’ve been shaken to the core on how they operate.”
Bryon Wentzlaff, vice president of sales for Colorado-based service provider ResortInternet, estimates only 25 percent of seniors housing communities had the infrastructure in place to handle the increased demand. “We saw a huge uptick in video conferencing and data sharing,” he adds.
What’s more, seniors were already becoming increasingly tech-savvy, according to Kevin Merrill, vice president of Inviacom, a seniors housing division of Single Digits, based in Indian Trail, North Carolina.
“A lot of communities have not embraced technology as much as they should because they feel the seniors aren’t embracing it, which is a misunderstanding,” says Merrill, who points out that seniors are the fastest growing demographic on the internet. “They have time on their hands. Ease of use is making it more attractive, [internet usage] is being gifted by family members and it’s being used as a communication tool. This was true both before and after COVID.”
“We often see communities where 80 to 90 percent of residents are online on a daily basis,” adds Merrill.
Inviacom saw a notable increase in its clients’ internet use and the number of devices on each network following the outbreak, according to Chris Shupe, general manager of Inviacom. Overall internet usage increased 20 to 25 percent, with a 30 percent increase in unique devices accessing the network.
This new, internet-connected senior may be here to stay. A survey of residents by Dallas-based operator Buckner Retirement Services found that while 55 percent of seniors never participated in a video call before the pandemic, 52 percent plan to continue using them after the lockdowns are over.
“The pandemic is going to make operators realize the importance of having a connected life, and the robust infrastructure needed to support the engagement and connectivity of their staff and residents,” says Shupe.
The various providers estimate the costs of the infrastructure at between $20 and $60 per unit, depending on the speed and a variety of options.
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With the internet becoming so integral to life, including those of seniors, service providers suggested that operators begin considering connectivity as a utility like water and power, rather than an optional amenity.
Furthermore, a well-connected community gains advantages both for fighting COVID-19 and running an efficient company, notes Swanger. Some communities even use wearable technology to trace which residents may have came into contact with each other. If one resident is diagnosed with COVID-19, the operator can now track who else at the community is at risk.
“After this pandemic, there will be a lot of emerging technologies that help with operational efficiency, data collection and contact tracing,” says Swanger. “As we open back up, how are we going to ensure that we’re still keeping our residents safe? Using the internet for this is just going to be the norm, fully integrated in everything.”
Arrow Senior Living, based in St. Charles, Missouri, operates 26 communities and has a strong focus on technology use. “We believe that technology can drive down the cost of care,” says Stephanie Harris, the company’s CEO.
In recent years, Arrow condensed all its staff devices into one — an iPod Touch — that integrates all the software that frontline staff members use. The single device allows caregivers to have electronic health records, accounting, alerts and more all in one piece of technology that fits in their pockets.
“Our staff were carrying iPods, pagers, telephones… we had to get it down to one simple device,” says Harris.
Thanks to its belief in technology, the company was already using technologies like virtual tours for prospective residents and remote hiring for prospective employees — all without any direct contact and the risk of infection. Arrow also immediately began setting up virtual events with entertainers and fitness programs. Residents were offered tablet computers to check out to join the virtual events offering.
All this was possible despite Arrow using four to five times more internet bandwidth than a year ago, says Harris. The company did increase its internet bandwidth to accommodate the heavier use, at a cost of approximately $500 per month per community.
For COVID-specific technology, Arrow is currently looking into thermal readers that automatically flag people who are running a fever and facial recognition devices that allow pre-approval of who may enter the building. One technology will even inform staff members or residents if they are wearing their mask incorrectly.
“That will be super critical that we can get passive alerts about symptoms before a resident would even know that he or she has the disease,” says Harris. “We need to think about solutions that create efficiencies.”
Many operators stepped up their game regarding telehealth in the wake of the pandemic, greatly reducing the need for high-risk trips to doctor’s offices, notes Swanger.
“Telehealth is going to become much more the norm. Insurance companies, providers and residents will be accepting of it now.”
The long-term outlook
So what do operators need to do in order to move forward in a more internet-dependent world?
As baby boomers age into seniors housing, they’re going to bring more devices and higher expectations for connectivity. In 2011, the average couple in independent living had two internet-connected devices. Now that exact same demographic group has eight to 10 devices, according to Inviacom’s Merrill.
“They’ve adopted streaming TV services, Alexa and Sonos, all on top of the explosion of tablets and smartphones. The baby boomers that are at home now are only going to continue to bring more devices to the community.”
ResortInternet’s Wentzlaff notes that communities can prepare better with a high-speed, fiber-optic connection. This “backbone” allows service providers to scale up the internet connection in times of higher need, such as what the pandemic caused.
Additionally, a complex network that allows separate connections on the same network for care providers ensures that technology used for urgent matters related to health always has a strong connection, adds Wentzlaff.
“From a healthcare perspective, doctors and nurses are expecting that an operator implements a network that would support any needs or monitoring tools required for the resident.”
At the end of the day, COVID-19 may have forced operators to a higher level of connectivity that could benefit the industry as a whole in the long run. Now that communities have implemented telehealth, virtual events and video calls, those features may become a standard part of the industry — expected offerings, not high-end bonuses.
In other words, while the cause may be unfortunate, the long-term results may be positive.
“We’ve all been pushed into a fast forward,” says Arrow’s Harris. “COVID was a disruptive force. It added more work on an already tough business model. We still need to think about solutions in terms of creating efficiencies.” n