Grape: Technology, higher expectations change seniors market

Established companies must integrate Web and personalized services

By Tom Grape

Business leaders in every industry need to anticipate and implement innovative ideas to keep up with the changes that affect their success. In the senior living industry, there are many factors that are changing the marketplace.

Market growth is a major factor influencing the senior living industry. With 10,000 baby boomers turning 65 every day, a dramatic growth spurt awaits us. Our industry must prepare for these market changes and expansion. Along with this influx comes a dramatically changing customer demographic, with different expectations.

We must move away from ‘generic’ service offerings and come to terms with service customization, meaning that each community must tailor its activities and amenities around the demands of its senior residents. Much like the hospitality industry, some of today’s seniors housing communities offer higher-end finish details, elaborate entrances and lobbies, and comforts that would make anyone feel at home. For example, five years ago Wi-Fi was not a necessary service. Today, however, it’s a standard service offering, just like television and electricity. 

Through conversations with seniors and families, Benchmark has taken the pulse of the customer to develop new services. Examples include:

Online. Benchmark is working to close the gap between America’s seniors and new technology. Our communities offer residents the opportunity to participate in “Benchmark Connections” — extensive classes and training programs for Internet use. This allows residents to connect with family members all over the world. Additionally, computer labs include touch screens for residents with arthritis, and large screens and keyboards for residents with faded vision.

– Staying active. Each of Benchmark’s 50 seniors communities offers a mix of activities ranging from tai chi to online education courses. The variety is deliberate because seniors want choice, but also because Benchmark takes the broad view when it comes to wellness. Wellness is multi-dimensional; it encompasses physical, social, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual wellness. The simple truth is seniors want engagement on many levels, and those of us working in the seniors market should keep that in mind.

Personalized services. The seniors market isn’t alone in setting high standards of quality service, but we may be leading the way in the art of personalizing our services. It starts with the fact that we are creating a home for each and every one of our residents. What could be more personal? It’s also the reason we created Benchmark Signature Services, as our way to provide residents the option to enjoy a level of service that complements our existing levels of care. Such services often include one-on-one companionship, an iPad tutorial, help getting reacquainted after a stay in a hospital or rehab facility, and so on. 


Delivering services for diverse needs

Service delivery in the senior living market has also dramatically changed, with varying needs of residents becoming much more complex. Communities now partner with providers, offering additional services to accommodate the spectrum of needs. Collaboration with healthcare providers also means communities are finding ways to deliver services to residents where they live, often minimizing visits to the doctor’s office and the accompanying disruption to their day.

Code changes and restrictions have become more prevalent recently, as have stringent Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements, which are needed in most senior housing communities. In facilities where there are varying levels of medical and personal care, separate entrances and wings for each particular class of service are applied, as residents who require little or no care want an environment absent of medical issues. In such cases there are common areas where all residents have the ability to interact.

Technology is a powerful enabler for just about every aspect of senior living, but at the end of the day technology needs to do one thing: enrich people’s lives by providing them with great services and an exceptional experience. At Benchmark, technology is an increasing part of our resident care. We use tablets, among other things, to capture and analyze data at more points than ever before. Technology has also improved our business processes as we use business intelligence and dashboards to support our decisions. Electronic health records also allow for better communication and efficiency when working with healthcare providers. 

Behind much of the change in senior living is a new generation of care-enabling technologies that is making its way into the mainstream. Care providers, like Benchmark Senior Living, are finding real benefits in technologies that can enhance caring for seniors. For instance, Benchmark recently installed a Wi-Fi-based mobile emergency call and wander management system in our newest community. Through our involvement with Aging2.0, we also see promise with social robots, like Jibo and Mobiserv, to supplement care services. If a new technology supports our ongoing focus on safety, or helps remove barriers to our residents’ participation in the life of the community, then it’s worth a look.


Facing challenges of the industry

The senior living market has really come into its own in so many ways in recent years. Senior living is now viewed as a desirable residential and lifestyle option, and as a critical component in how society meets the health and wellness needs of many seniors. It’s also a growing segment of the workforce, and an attractive, stable investment for the capital markets. 

But senior living and seniors housing is not without its challenges. The negative perception around it is an issue that the entire industry is working to change. That’s too bad, and it’s time to reset our expectations. The industry is far more customer-centric, and seniors housing developers are delivering far better products than ever before. The fact is, those who move into a senior living community today don’t have to give up their old lifestyle, and in fact can enjoy a senior version of their favorite lifestyle. I find that new approach refreshing, and I hope you do, too.

Another challenge to senior living is affordability. But that’s changing too. As the market matures, providers are growing in number and sophistication, and introducing new kinds of developments at different price points. Benchmark, for instance, is responding by developing communities that offer more variety — from independent living, assisted living, memory care, skilled nursing, and new offerings like our Friendship Suites shared apartments. 

Sustainability and LEED buildings will also be a growing factor as future residents will explore communities that are good for both residents and the environment.

Tom Grape is the founder, chairman and CEO of Benchmark Senior Living, the largest provider of seniors housing in the Northeast.