How Technology May Be Threatening Your Business

Programs like Uber, Grubhub and FaceTime can keep residents out of senior living. So how do we compete?

By Lindsay Casillas, Senior Vice President of Sales and Business Development, Sodexo Seniors, North America

Years ago, as a community sales manager, I could scan a brochure and find a service or amenity that would make the difference in the daily life of a resident.

Relying on relatives and neighbors for rides to the doctor or pharmacy? We have shuttle services to get you where you need to go.

Living on local restaurant delivery, grocery take-out or frozen meals six days a week? We provide three nutritious, home-cooked meals a day with plenty of options to please your palate.

Missing out on bridge club, knitting or craft group with your friends? Here’s a calendar of dozens of activities where you can make new ones. Best of all, they’re just steps from your new front door.

But that was then, nearly 15 years ago. This is now.

Today, the seniors housing industry is rapidly approaching a pivotal crossroads. Despite an oversupply of senior housing in the United States, our strongest contender isn’t some fancy new community or even a senior’s bond to their house — it’s technology. It’s Grubhub, Peapod, Uber, Alexa, FaceTime, Fitbit and any number of other new and emerging tech-powered enterprises.

These programs translate to meals, transportation, educational activities, social connection and exercise. Yes, the same technology that’s disrupted numerous other industries is now honing in on senior living. That’s our real competition.

And to make matters worse, it seems like we haven’t even realized it yet.

Industry sales process is outdated

I recently had the chance to accompany a friend as she shopped around some of the most recognizable assisted living brands for her mother. Time after time, in a range of price points, we encountered the same decades-old sales pitch. This pitch was geared almost exclusively to showcasing a daunting list of cookie-cutter services, amenities, packages and care plans.

I confess I felt somewhat embarrassed. At best, the experience was eye-opening. At worst, it was exasperating.

At the end of the day, my friend turned to me in frustration and said, “I’m exhausted and there is no way I’m moving my mom into any of these places.” Frankly, I couldn’t blame her.

The industry’s approach, although striving to be friendly and helpful, felt impersonal, out of touch and misdirected. That’s because it was.

For as long as anyone can remember, senior living executives have relied upon the appeal that most seniors eat frozen TV dinners, depend on their grown children for rides, wait for days for the phone to ring, and struggle to find motivation to exercise. Along the way, the smartphone revolution upended entire industries and our customers began changing, too.

The seniors of today are rapidly embracing social media and the digital age as never before. The seniors of tomorrow are already ahead of that point.

Why haven’t we reacted sooner? Do we really think we’re immune to tech-driven disruption? Are we still in denial that it will impact us? Whatever the reason, we need to act and act now — not only out of a duty to our investors, employees, and staff, but also to our communities.

Operators must adapt to survive

Yes, tech disruption is a threat, but it’s only as threatening as our stubborn refusal to change and adapt. At heart, we now have a golden opportunity to rethink, refocus and recommit ourselves to our core values.

Here is how we move forward:

  • • Focus more on community, less on amenities: When you strip away all the conveniences and perks that technology has now matched, you’re left with one thing that’s even more of a commodity than it was a decade ago: Community. When a person becomes a senior living resident, they join a micro-society, one that replaces silence with laughter, music, the clinking of glasses and possibilities. Life stories are to be shared, hidden talents rediscovered and feelings of purpose and self-worth renewed.

Being part of a real-life community means more than simply not being alone. It means human connections are made, relationships formed and bonds forged. That is the ultimate innovation and it also happens to be a person’s greatest need.

  • • Accept the needs technology can now address; and acknowledge we can’t outrun it: Let’s open wide the doors to the latest and greatest technology and allow senior living residents to fully incorporate it into their lives. Above all, let’s ensure that we offer strong, secure and consistent Wi-Fi throughout our communities.

For years, senior living communities have offered Internet cafes and classes teaching e-mail and other basic computer skills. Let’s build on that by helping residents form online social media groups via Facebook, explore Twitter or post photos to Instagram. The key is not to sell technology as some spectacular feature, but rather to assure sales prospects that a senior living community can and will keep pace with digital needs and trends while enhancing their overall quality of life. As they say, if you can’t beat them, join them. Instead of trying to match all the exciting, readily available perks of the sharing economy, let’s integrate them into our community.

Tech still can’t replace personal contact

What struck me most from my disappointing “mystery shopping” experience was its vast contrast from the genuine reality of what a quality senior living community can offer. We all see it first hand; it’s why we’re in this industry.

I saw it when a senior retirement community literally rescued and restored a vibrant woman, my maternal grandmother, who I cared for and dearly loved. I saw it countless times throughout my career when staff members became family members to the residents they were serving. And I saw it just a few weeks ago, when my family and I spent spring break with my paternal grandparents at their retirement community in rural Missouri.

One evening, beneath a warm lamplight, my grandfather recounted his experiences in the Korean War. He told us about crossing the Yalu River between North Korea and China, about being wounded, and about escaping potential capture as enemy troops surrounded his hospital tent. I’d never heard him speak of the war before.

As I watched my two young sons delicately handle his Purple Heart medal, I thought to myself, “You can’t do this on Facetime.”