IoT Is Next Big Tech Disruptor

by Jeff Shaw

Operators leverage Internet of Things platforms to improve health and well-being of seniors while maximizing workflow and revenues.

By Eric Taub

The so-called smart home is fast becoming the standard home. Today, everyday appliances such as refrigerators and ovens in addition to lighting and HVAC can be controlled via the internet. Now, that same technology is increasingly being employed in senior living as a way to increase resident well-being and improve a community’s operating efficiencies and bottom line.

It’s called IoT, or the Internet of Things, a phrase that defines a world whereby virtually every device that has a plug — from a light bulb to a garage door to motion detectors — can be accessed via the internet and have its data shared across multiple devices.

Brushing your teeth? A Bluetooth-connected toothbrush can track your brushing habits and share that data with your dentist. When you’re getting close to your house, an Alexa-equipped vehicle can automatically open your garage door and even turn on the lights. And smart watches not only can detect a fall, but also dial emergency services or a loved one to get help and input the fall data into an online dashboard.

In the U.S., revenue for the IoT market is projected to reach $5.27 billion this year, according to Statista. With an annual growth rate of 8.75 percent, revenue should grow to $7.37 billion by 2027. The vast majority of that revenue will come from smart home technologies.

The internet of everything

“The Internet of Things is really the Internet of Everything,” notes Scott Moody, CEO of K4Connect, a provider of aggregated technology tools for senior living. “Once we integrate various devices — smartphones, wearables, tablets and sensors — into one system, information gleaned from one device is available to many others.”

For example, an integrated motion detector not only senses movement, but also can be used to turn on lights and record the motion in an operator’s resident dashboard, thereby providing documentation that the patient is up and active.

On the other hand, if no motion is detected from a resident at times when it should be expected, an alert can be sent to staff to check in on the resident to ensure that the patient is well.

People before technology

The key to making IoT work is to put the resident, not technology, first, says Kian Saneii, CEO of Independa, a provider of resident engagement technology accessed via a TV screen. 

Independa integrates various sensor devices; caregivers can then set up routines. If a sensor detects motion in one room and not in the next, for example, an alert can be sent. 

Using skills offered through a standard Amazon Alexa voice control device connected to a resident dashboard, residents can hear what upcoming events are on their calendars and sign up for various activities by just asking.

“There’s no question that IoT will grow in importance,” says Saneii. 

“The key is it must be person-centric, giving residents what they want, not residence-centric.”

Operations game-changer 

Because IoT technology encompasses a wide variety of solutions, integrating it into a community’s operations can help solve site-specific challenges, whether that’s improving resident health or using sensors to detect water leaks and then alerting staff before the issue becomes serious.

“If IoT implementation doesn’t change the way of working, then you’re not using the right technology,” notes Scott Code, vice president of the LeadingAge Center for Aging Services Technologies.

With the pressure of constant staff shortages, IoT devices that can sense, record and alert caregivers as to resident interests and problems allows senior living management to use workers most efficiently. 

For example, sensors that detect movement can eliminate the need for staff to conduct regular room visits to ensure that residents are well. And other devices that automatically turn on lights and raise room temperature, or the use of voice-activated TV remotes, allow residents to call for help less often.

While room sensors are important to ensure the well-being of residents, simply implementing tracking technology will prove of little interest to residents, says Moody.

“First, IoT implementations must be seen as an amenity and a benefit to the resident. Then you can use it for health.” Residents want automated systems that turn on lights and open curtains, he points out. 

In addition, one activity can indicate the greater condition of a resident. For example, someone who asks an Amazon Alexa device for the weather forecast is also passively indicating that he or she is alive and well. This data can eliminate the need for a morning check-in by a staff member.

“As a resident, I don’t want to have to push a stupid button to let staff know I’m okay,” adds Moody. “And I don’t want to pull up an app to turn on a light. Responsive actions are always the best. Just getting out of a bed should initiate an action to turn on a light and raise the temperature.”

The point is that simple actions like these will improve a patient’s well-being by making their lives easier. “You don’t have to do complex things with IoT,” says Moody. 

“For example, by automatically lowering the thermostat in a room at night, a resident will sleep better and that will make him or her happier and healthier.”

Boomers and IoT

Glennis Solutions, a provider of senior living software for residents, family caregivers and back-office operations, believes that data aggregation and automated systems provided via IoT devices are key to profitable operations.

“With the baby boomer generation entering assisted living and the continuing shortage of staff, IoT devices will positively impact care,” says Ali Sareea, Glennis Solutions’ chief technology officer.

By integrating various devices such as wearables, tablets and Alexa-type voice products, customers of Glennis Solutions can automatically build a digital profile of a resident, with quantifiable information then available to family members and staff.

For example, caregivers can note on a tablet each time and for how long they interact with a resident. Data gleaned automatically from sensors and calendars can track how many activities a resident engages in, how well they’re sleeping and whether they’re moving about during the night.

Changes in sleeping habits before and after adjustments to medication can indicate how well various prescribed drugs are working. For dining, residents can access menus via an Alexa device, alleviating the need to call the desk to find out what’s for dinner; at the same time, it helps the community track the popularity of various food items and when it’s time to order more.

Glennis has developed an app that gives family members information on a resident’s vitals and access to that resident’s calendar so they can be assured that their loved one is staying engaged, as well as presenting a list of daily tasks completed by staff.

“By showing family members this various data, we have quantifiable information to prove that a resident is living better in the community than they would at home,” says Sareea.

Thanks to the mobile app and the necessity for staff to use it to document their activities, recording compliance among Glennis’ customers has increased to more than 95 percent within 24 hours, compared to only a 65 percent compliance rate after 15 days. 

Alexa’s reach grows

While adeptness at operating tech devices often declines with age, the ability to issue commands using one’s voice typically does not. Amazon’s Alexa voice-controlled devices are now being integrated into various technology offerings such as those from K4Connect and Glennis as an easy way for senior residents to stay in control of activities.

Amazon now offers Alexa Together, a $20-per-month service that enables an adult caregiver to program an Alexa device for a senior, adding skills and complex routines that monitor a senior’s activities and send alerts when things appear amiss.

For example, either unexpected activity or the lack of activity, as detected by a smart home motion sensor connected to Alexa, can be cause for an alert. Routines can be programmed by a caregiver that could include a voice reminder to drink water and then, at a later prescribed time, to take one’s medication. 

To help with the effects of sundowning, a routine could be created to play music or remind the resident of the next day’s activities. For those who have lost the ability to communicate via voice, Amazon’s Echo Show devices, with built-in screens, can project text-based suggestions.

“The elderly prefer using Alexa compared to listening to a live individual tell them what to do, because Alexa doesn’t become impatient; she becomes a companion,” says Farah Shariff, senior product manager for Alexa for Everyone.

Shariff can imagine a time when an Alexa device could be powered to note when a user becomes less engaged with it than before, or speaks to Alexa in a weaker-than-usual voice. That information would be an indicator to alert a caregiver that the user might be undergoing cognitive decline.

Financial upside

While the needs of the user must come first when deciding how to implement IoT devices within a community, doing so can also dramatically improve a community’s bottom line. 

Offering new, popular services will create strong word-of-mouth to attract new residents. Once a resident signs up for an activity via voice or app, a digital attendance record is established.  Those activities, combined with digital records of falls or other adverse events, enable a residence to more accurately track and bill appropriately for services rendered. 

“Without technology, the wellness director relies on verbal updates and needs to sort through paper to check for any holes in the documentation,” says Cassie Diner, clinical product manager for MatrixCare, a provider of operations management software for senior living. 

Speaking at a recent webinar hosted by Seniors Housing Business, Diner also noted that “with technology, information is immediately available to [the wellness director]. Without proper documentation, there’s a fall in compliance and a decrease in quality and revenue.” 

Other benefits as noted in the webinar include the ability to create more accurate billing; with sensors recording adverse events, a community can offer strong evidence for additional needed intervention to keep the resident safe. 

In addition, by recording real-time resident information gleaned through sensors, calendars and various Bluetooth-connected devices such as scales, communities can protect themselves against adverse litigation while offering family members unbiased proof that their loved ones are in the best of care.

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