Can Tech Solve the Jobs Crisis in Seniors Housing?

SAN DIEGO — Two statistics exist today that put the seniors housing industry in a precarious position. One is that adults over age 65 account for 15 percent of the total U.S. population – a figure that is projected to swell to 25 percent by 2060, according the U.S. Census. The second stat revolves around the seniors housing workforce.

Only 933,000 people currently work in this industry in the United States. This has created a need for an additional 300,000 employees by 2026 to keep pace with seniors demand, according to Argentum, which held its annual conference at the San Diego Convention Center May 14 to 16.

Heavy hitters within the industry are doing what they can to combat this. Argentum, for one, has launched the Senior Living Works initiative to connect those within the industry to a pipeline of potential workers and educators.

“It’s more important than ever that we continue to build relationships with educational institutions at every level, to reach a diverse and talented pool of individuals who could comprise the next generation of the senior living workforce,” said James Balda, Argentum president and CEO, in a statement introducing the new initiative. “It’s imperative that we also actively engage and support the employees we have, as they can serve as the industry’s biggest champions.”

Some experts offer other solutions that can supplement the need for more manpower: more machine power.

“We’re surrounded by tech everyday,” said Nina Easton, author, journalist and Argentum Senior Living Executive Conference speaker. “Nearly every aspect of our lives intersects with it. The human population over age 80 is growing at a rapid rate. We have an urgent need to recruit more staff to care for residents in your communities. Two primary robots can help with that, working within your communities.”

I, Robot?

Easton explained that machines focusing on service and companionship could alleviate some of the strain on the seniors housing workforce. Service robots could provide care for elderly residents, assisting them with everyday tasks such as standing or walking.

“These tasks can be severely strenuous for caregivers, who perform these actions an average of 40 times a day,” she noted.

This robotic iteration could take many forms, from Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri to robotic pets and even human-looking robots. What was previously a sci-fi-sounding concept of a far-off future is now here, as evidenced by one particularly compelling conference participant.

Sophia was the first non-human keynote speaker to take the stage at an Argentum conference. The humanoid robot’s features were extremely life-like. The only hint that she may not be one of us came in the form of eyes that didn’t blink and a mouth that didn’t move.

“This is a human-machine collaboration reimagined,” said Lilian Myers, an IBM leader who held a talk on technology during the conference. “This is tech-supportive aging. Leave everything you know at the door and take off your corporate suit, put on your human body and become the person you’re trying to solve for.”

Myers noted there are three types of workers in any industry: reinventors, practitioners and aspirationals. She suggested today’s new tech-focused world needed more reinventors to take chances and disrupt the common way of doing things. For seniors housing executives, this meant adopting new models of care and capturing more data.

“The reinventors’ organization is exceptionally well aligned with their strategy, IT and management groups,” she said. “They’re able to collaborate and extract value from an ecosystem around them. It’s a culture of experimentation that is priceless.”

Myers was quick to point out that a strategy around reinvention didn’t simply mean throwing hordes of cash at every robot that walked through the door. Rather, it was about solving your current dilemma in the most effective, streamlined fashion. She refers to this strategy as “design thinking.”

“It’s not about the sensors in these devices. It’s about what’s behind them,” she continued. “What are you trying to solve for? Who is the person? What are they about? What are you trying to get done? How do you understand their highs and lows? Or what problem goes on during their day or during a period of time that you can solve for them?”

Sensors, Apps Must Put Resident First

Myers also believed that technological applications, however well intended by seniors housing executives, were often implemented for the benefit of the resident’s family, not the senior themselves. This was illustrated through an IBM video that showed attendees that followed a solemn-looking senior through his day.

His fork noted what type of food he was eating, the amount of calories he consumed and how many bites he took. His cane recorded how many steps he accomplished and set off annoying notifications telling him to go walk more. His bed sensor demanded he turn off the TV at night and to go to bed. It then logged how long he remained in bed and what time he awoke.

In a light-hearted twist, the senior learned to cook two plates of food – one he superficially stabbed at for the device’s recording, and another, much more delicious-looking meal that he happily consumed. He bribed a college student to take his cane for a walk, and he began piling books on his bed so he could stay up late. While the video ended in jest, it highlighted a huge problem with tech and seniors.

“Tech can be an uninvited guest,” Myers said. “Sensors that watch your every move – that’s all for the family, not for the senior.

“If you don’t feel old, you don’t want to buy a product for the old. You have to have non-negotiable tenets when it comes to technology. If you can’t give the resident the benefit, you’re not doing the right thing.”

These non-negotiable tenets can be easy to determine, Myers believed, as long as they’re led by a few criteria. They should be personalized, permissioned (meaning the senior and/or family has agreed to this mechanism) and trustworthy. They should focus on the senior’s inclusion, safety, recreation or ability for the senior to thrive in this new environment. They should be laid out with empathy in mind as the senior enters a new phase in the journey of life.

With these strategies in place, medically incentivized sensors take a backseat. Taking the spotlight instead were programs like artificial and virtual reality experiences that can transport seniors to a different location, motorized devices that can carry grocery bags or be sent to pick things up and robotic dogs that embody many of the fun-loving personality quirks their furry friends display.

“The world is changing for these people,” Myers said. “Extension of lifespan doesn’t just mean when we hit a certain age we feel old. It means entering life in a different way. The challenge you have is to convert a world built by and for the young into a world that supports and engages populations that live 100 years and beyond.”  

— Nellie Day