Robots to the Rescue?

by Jeff Shaw

Technology can replace some functions in senior living, but not human connection.

By Serena Lipton, JLL Valuation & Advisory Services

“The COVID-19 crisis has created a tremendous opportunity for the industry to evolve into a new set of realities. More than ever, innovative, resident- and cost-centric technology solutions are front and center.” — Mel Gamzon, principal, Senior Housing Global Advisors

Without a doubt, advancement in technology has quickly become one of the most relevant trends in the seniors housing industry. Adapting to these trends is crucial for companies that want to be well positioned for the future. 

Since May 2020, I have had the opportunity to learn from key figures who are paving the way towards the normalization of the use of robots in senior living communities. I learned about this technology firsthand from the tech entrepreneurs who are responsible for designing and creating some of the first robots introduced to various communities across the United States. I collaborated with these entrepreneurs to spread awareness about the potential uses and benefits of these robots. In order to best understand why they may be the solution, one must first understand the issue at hand.

Where are robots needed?

Each year, seniors housing operators spend a great deal of time and money training their staff for an array of unique situations that undoubtedly arise on a daily basis in senior care communities. Not only is it difficult to find compassionate employees who are committed to undergoing proper training, but it has also become increasingly difficult for communities to manage healthy levels of employee retention. 

The rise of the COVID-19 pandemic has further disrupted the cycle between budget cuts, resulting in mass layoffs. School closures forced many professionals to choose between braving the high cost of childcare or leaving their jobs. 

Whether they be temporary or long-term, robots pose an attractive option to such fixes, as time and time again, a robot will always be less expensive than your lowest-paid employee. Staffing and labor shortages represent just one of the many challenges that the industry is facing, and it’s one that robots can certainly help with.

What can robots do?

Robots have the unique ability to solve key operational issues that have been increasingly plaguing all care types within the industry, such as the need for contact-free care solutions. One company that is making major strides towards the normalization of these technological advancements is Temi. 

The Temi robot has leveraged the hospitality and healthcare industries as ideal targets during the initial creation process. More recently, Temi has realized that their technology can benefit not only hotels and hospitals, but also senior care communities. The company’s technology is designed to deliver various convenience items such as meals, groceries and medications to and from resident rooms and nurse’s stations, completely hands-free. 

Such features are key when the community is not only understaffed, but also has a high number of residents confined to their rooms. In addition to creating a hands-free delivery system, the Temi robot also has the ability to provide hands-free video communication, whether it is a virtual visit to the doctor or virtual quality time with family and friends. These rather minute features make a world of difference to those who need it most.

For years now, operators and developers have been working hard to break free from previous stigmas surrounding the industry and looking toward transforming senior care to more closely align with the hospitality industry. It has now become imperative for communities to create a more hospitable experience for their residents in order to stay competitive in an ever-evolving market. 

At the beginning of the pandemic, many operators feared that COVID-19 protocols would force them to retreat to a more institutionalized way of life for their residents due to quarantine requirements and limited usage of common areas. These technological advancements have arrived in a rather timely manner, as labors costs are not decreasing any time soon and disease spread continues to pose a serious threat on the future of the industry.

How will staff react?

When this type of technology is introduced, where robots have the ability to take over significant tasks that make up an entire job, we must ask ourselves how this could potentially affect morale amongst staff as well as the families that have entrusted these communities to care for their loved ones.

It then becomes crucial to strike a balance. How can we introduce robots into our communities without losing the human aspect of care? Aren’t humanity and care at the very core of everything our industry stands for? 

The truth: robots are novelties that cannot take the place of human interaction. Therefore, robots are not meant to replace the human aspect; rather, they are meant to enhance it. 

“We see technology and robotics as a conduit to enhance the human experience, not replace it,” explains Sanjeev Shetty, chief global and innovation officer at Connected Living. “The pandemic has taught us that human connection is so key in preventing social isolation. At Connected Living we have made this a cornerstone of our ecosystem by increasing engagement options, communication points and wellness options through an easy to use, affordable and highly customizable platform to fit the needs of all operators within senior living.” 

COVID-19 will not be here forever, but other threats to residents’ health, such as the seasonal flu and the risk of future variant diseases, will be. It is our obligation to take what we are learning during these unprecedented times and apply it to any future vulnerabilities in our industry.

The speed of innovation will continue to accelerate and adapt to susceptible clientele and an evolving market. 

Among our key takeaways from 2020, we learned that technology is no longer an amenity, but rather, a necessity. The demand for more advanced technologies will continue to grow and, subsequently, we will see another record year of venture dollars invested into the space. 

Not only is the market going to demand new technologies, but we now have a moral imperative to usher them in as soon as possible, as it has become evident that the health and safety of residents are more important than ever before.

Serena Lipton is an analyst for JLL Valuation & Advisory Services, specializing in the seniors housing and healthcare practices. She provides a wide array of advisory services including third-party valuations, market studies and feasibility analysis throughout the United States. Her primary focus includes the market research and financial analysis of active adult, independent living, assisted living, memory care and nursing care properties located throughout the northeastern United States.

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