Dispelling the Technophobia Myth

Today’s seniors and their families demand video streaming and ubiquitous Wi-Fi, and operators need the infrastructure to handle it.

By Eric Taub

As a new generation of Americans age and begin to move into assisted living, the old tale that the elderly neither understand nor care about technology is falling by the wayside.

Today’s assisted living residents are increasingly adept at technology, and they’re bringing their devices with them when they move into their new digs. Tablets, cell phones, laptops and smart TVs, once relegated to younger generations, are being embraced by seniors in their 70s and 80s, individuals for whom digital devices have already been a part of their lives.

Less than half a decade ago, assisted living residences could safely get away without offering facility-wide internet connections, leaving those who wanted to connect their digital devices to subscribe to a local internet provider on their own.

But today, residents (and their adult children) demand connectivity, not just in their senior apartments, but throughout their residence, allowing them to easily communicate, stream and get remote medical assistance wherever they are.

According to a January report from the Pew Research Center, smartphone and tablet ownership, as well as use of social media, has dramatically increased among persons over age 65, and the gap between that group’s usage and younger individuals has dramatically closed.

Smartphone usage for those over 65 has grown from 13 percent 10 years ago to 61 percent today, while tablet use has increased from 6 percent to 44 percent. Social media engagement for the over-65 demographic has undergone similar growth, jumping from 16 percent in 2012 to 45 percent today.

Internet access has also increased among the older population. Today 75 percent of adults 65 and older use the web. Twenty years ago, the gap between internet usage for young versus older adults was 56 percentage points; today it’s narrowed to just 24. 

“Internet access in senior living has become as important as any utility, like water, electricity and heat,” says Majd Alwan, senior vice president of technology and business strategy for LeadingAge, and executive director of the Center for Aging Services Technologies (CAST). 

Post-pandemic shift

There’s no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic, with its mandated social isolation, dramatically increased the need for internet access, says Alwan. As a result, there’s been significant growth among the elderly in the use of social connectiveness devices, video streaming and voice control products such as Amazon’s Alexa devices. And thanks to a decision by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) to reimburse telehealth visits during the pandemic, the internet has become an important health-related technology as well. 

Senior living providers “significantly increased their use of telehealth, social connectedness technologies and data analytics,” according to last year’s LeadingAge Ziegler 200 report. The study found that the use of telehealth and remote patient monitoring had grown to 44 percent of communities surveyed, up from just 20 percent in 2019. And resident use of social connectedness and engagement technologies had increased from 50 percent in 2018 to 66 percent in 2020.

Ubiquitous Wi-Fi and internet coverage throughout a senior living facility is not just for the residents’ enjoyment; it is just as important for the staff. 

Blanket Wi-Fi coverage enables staff to monitor residents’ health using various personal emergency response system (PERS) devices. Remote patient monitoring products allow caregivers to check residents’ vital signs, and internet-connected geofencing products can alert staff when a memory care patient wanders. In addition, always-on access to electronic medical records allows staff to upload patient data to the cloud while checking on residents, rather than having to wait until they arrive back at their workstations.

To further differentiate themselves from the competition, many assisted living residences are promoting their gourmet-level food services. Residents learn about the day’s menu through notices on common-area video displays or on the residents’ television screens. They can then order their meals using the residence’s internet link. 

As food costs rise, it’s important that residences control spending. To do so, internet access is crucial to enabling instantaneous tracking of the consumption of a multitude of food ingredients, and avoiding over-ordering to best rationalize expenditures.

Full coverage

But while the tech-savvy among us may have no problem setting up a home Wi-Fi network — ordering service, signing contracts, purchasing a cable modem online and then monitoring the system for occasional glitches and outages — providing continuous, residence-wide, high-speed coverage at a senior living facility requires a completely different skillset.

Whether new or existing construction, a facility that’s preparing to bring in system-wide internet must map out potential dead spots; assess the type of construction and how various materials will hinder Wi-Fi transmission; determine how best to hide cables; properly space and place Wi-Fi access points; provide system redundancies; and continuously monitor the system for any performance issues.

In addition, tech support will be key in a senior living residence. While older residents are becoming much more adept at using technologies, it’s still true that as we age, it often becomes more difficult to grasp technical concepts and to remember various digital routines that might come more easily to younger individuals. 

To prevent an emergency situation from being unaddressed and to avoid upsetting residents, tech support in senior living needs to be quickly available and dispensed by individuals trained to deal with those who may have cognitive decline or simply are less comfortable working with today’s digital technologies.

Senior living residences have a wide variety of providers from which to choose, all of which can construct and maintain campus-wide internet network systems, working with local cable and fiber optic internet providers for service. They include such companies as Corning Optical Communications, Dojo Networks, EnGenius, HealthSignals, Single Digits and Xfinity Networks, among others. 

Partnering with local internet access providers such as AT&T, Comcast and Verizon, the companies survey the contracted property, create a heat map indicating where potential internet dead spots might lie and then install and maintain Wi-Fi access points throughout the facility. 

A menu of choices

Installation companies typically charge a fixed fee for system installation, and then a monthly maintenance contract per room, which guarantees a certain minimum speed. Higher speeds are also available for an additional cost, which a residence can position as an optional, extra-cost fee to the resident.

To future-proof the system as usage among residents and staff increases, Corning recommends the use of fiber-optics-based systems, allowing for an easy upgrade to the next generation of Wi-Fi once speed and capacity demands increase, says Deanna MacCormac, Corning’s market development analyst.

HealthSignals, based in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, offers what it terms “medical-grade Wi-Fi,” offering performance guarantees for reliability, redundancy, security, coverage, capacity and function certainty. Generators provide backup power in the case of an outage, ensuring always-on internet coverage.

Its typical cost to install internet in a 100-bed residence is approximately $100,000, with a monthly maintenance fee of $15 per Wi-Fi access point, each of which serves one to three residents, and based on a five- to seven- year agreement. To future-proof its systems, HealthSignals uses 10 gigabit-per-second fiber optic internet connections within the facility, offering symmetrical upload and download speeds. 

Dojo Networks contracts with 40 different fiber providers across the country, allowing it to offer speeds at facilities ranging from 16 to 100 gigabits per second. Operators pay $18 to $20 per room for the service, and can charge extra for higher speeds, sharing the additional revenue with Dojo.

The company provides its customers with 24/7 resident technical support, guaranteeing to answer phone queries within 15 seconds, and offering next-day onsite help if the problem cannot be solved remotely.

Xfinity Internet, owned by Comcast, offers internet services within Comcast operating areas. Most installations are served with 1.2 gigabit connections, with 10 gigabit speeds available soon, according to Adrian Adriano, Xfinity’s vice president of sales and marketing.

The installation includes an operator tool that allows management to control an individual resident’s unit, using internet-of-things (IoT) devices that can remotely lock and unlock doors, turn on lights and adjust a room’s thermostat.

Technical support can be especially important for elderly users of technology. Single Digits, based in Bedford, New Hampshire, sets up each resident’s room in person, helping the resident create passwords for all devices. “Always-available technical support is conducted by U.S.-based personnel specially trained in dealing with issues unique to the elderly,” says Jerry Grove, Single Digits’ vice president and general manager for senior living.

Five years ago, Friendship Village’s Wi-Fi network was a modest affair, available essentially for just staff. A small guest network gave visitors limited internet access. In 2017, Friendship Village, based in St. Louis, contracted with Single Digits to bring fiber-optic internet service to its two campuses and 1,000 residents.

The company placed 350 access points throughout the facilities, each 15 to 20 feet apart. The system uses Spectrum for internet access, with AT&T’s fiber network as a backup. 

Retrofitting wiring was not a problem; dropped ceilings allowed the cables to be hidden. Residents receive a minimum seven megabits-per-second download speed, enough to stream video, use Alexa devices to call security or the front desk, and activate smart lighting. For an additional $32 per month, residents can purchase a higher 50 megabits-per-second speed.

“Wi-Fi is a given; it’s just like TV, and it also makes staff operations more efficient and dependable,” says Rick Ware, Friendship Village’s senior IT director. “Today, families simply expect this.” n