Prepare for an influx of tech-savvy seniors

Today’s trends will reshape the senior living landscape for decades to come

By Jeff Bell

Margaret Rosenberger is up early each morning. As part of her routine, she looks forward to logging in to Facebook to see what friends and family might be up to, or just to view photos of loved ones. Rosenberger, who lives at The Village at Gainesville, a rental retirement community in Gainesville, Fla., has also been known to send out a tweet or two. 

By the way, Margaret is in her 90s.

In her age group, Rosenberger is among the minority. The latest numbers from The Pew Research Center show only 27 percent of Internet users over the age of 80 use social media of any kind. For her generation, the Internet, social media and various other tech options were of less importance when it came to choosing a senior living community. Times, however, are rapidly changing.

 

Generational differences drive need

As Baby Boomers continue their trek toward retirement, administrators, marketing directors and other senior living professionals must understand that the models used to attract seniors in the past won’t do for the future. 

Boomers stay up later. The activities that appeal to them are different than those enjoyed by older generations of seniors. In a nutshell, we’re dealing with a senior living generation gap.

We’ve seen this before. Perhaps no two generations in American history were more different than the so-called G.I. Generation that fought World War II and their children, the Boomers. Those generational challenges were clear in the 1960s and 1970s, as debates between parents and their children raged over issues such as Vietnam.

While we’ve always been able to predict and understand differences between Boomers and their older counterparts, today’s challenges aren’t political. They’re technological and they’re social. 

Senior living professionals who are able to get ahead of the curve in this area won’t just thrive when it comes to serving Boomers who are sure to be moving in. They’ll be in a position to lead the industry for decades to come. 

 

Aiming at a moving target

Let’s face it: the technological needs of seniors aren’t going to end with the coming generation of retirees. It’s an uncharted landscape.

As recently as 10 years ago, the technology we now deal with daily in senior living probably wasn’t on the radar of many in the industry. Social media and online review sites, for instance, have dramatically altered the way professionals in the industry look at business. If we’re able to understand the rapid pace of technological change over just a 10-year period, the snowball effect on the horizon is going to be tremendous.

Many communities are already working to stay ahead of the technological avalanche. They’re making moves that include the hiring of chief information officers (CIOs), once unheard of in senior living, and relying on those individuals to bring Wi-Fi and other tech upgrades to communities. It’s an investment, but most likely a wise one when you consider the changing landscape of senior habits.

Janel Wait, vice president of digital at GlynnDevins, agrees.

“The next generation of seniors, especially those moving into senior living communities, are using all forms of technology, and expect senior living communities to be ready to support their needs to connect,” says Wait.  “Wi-Fi won’t be added value; it will be a mandatory for both seniors and their adult children.”

At The Village at Gainesville, Margaret Rosenberger is the exception to the rule for her age group, but she represents what tomorrow’s 80- and 90-year-old seniors will be looking for. Seniors housing executives and other professionals who prioritize technological accommodations as part of their future business plans will need to be innovative and proactive. 

While a proactive approach to technological investment can be risky, a reactive approach runs certain risks as well. There’s no question seniors will demand access. Positioning your community to be the best provider will be the challenge.

As a good analogy for the future of senior living as it relates to technology, think of the way in which we consume reading materials today versus 20 years ago. Until recent years, publishers had been concerned with getting their product to readers in print. Today, more and more of us are reading magazines, novels and newspapers on our tablets or smartphones.

Similarly, the seniors housing plans of 20 years ago focused mostly on that which residents could see, touch and interact with. One of the main focus points for someone looking into seniors housing had to do with amenities such as exercise equipment and fine dining. Those are still top considerations, but trends in technology have added another dimension of expectation. 

 

Former luxuries become standard

Prospective seniors housing residents now view technology along the same lines as the dining room. Many won’t move to a community that doesn’t offer high-quality dining options, and the same can be said for a community that doesn’t have technological accommodations.

Wait says the trend toward hiring CIOs is no accident.

“The addition of a CIO at a community is a huge selling point for residents and their families. It means residents know they can ask for help from a knowledgeable resource when they need it, and families know their loved one can always be connected to them,” says Wait. “In addition, current staff will benefit from having a CIO on staff, so staff members who should be focused on care don’t have to help with technology troubleshooting.”

One such CIO, Travis Saunders of Friendship Village Tempe in Arizona, says you can tell a lot about the past by looking to the future.

“If you look back 15 years, the primary technology concerns of residents were television and telephone access,” says Saunders. “In 15 years, we may be touting our fleet of self-driving cars for trips to the golf course or grocery store. It’s changing that much.”

The trends in the industry are about much more than just wireless service. Some communities have added applications for computers and tablets that allow residents to access everything they once found on the community bulletin board — event calendars, meal schedules and more. Rresidents might even have the option of scheduling meetings or submitting other requests using community applications they can download. Some communities even offer online resident portals for easy bill paying.

Tomorrow’s retirees will look to incorporate technology into every possible aspect of their daily lives. Industry innovators know this, and will continue to consider investments that make the most sense.

At The Village at Gainesville, Margaret Rosenberger represents a tiny window to the future. The larger window, however, expands well beyond the technology options that exist at most communities today. Technology needs will continue to create jobs and lead to further investment and rebranding in the industry. From advertising and marketing to board meetings and sales discussions, technology will be on the table in ways which were unimaginable just a few short years ago.

The best way to know where the future is heading is to take a look at the signs. One of the clearest signs in today’s industry is the way technology is beginning to dominate the conversation regarding upgrades and changes to existing senior living communities, such as expanded Wi-Fi, as well as how it pertains to plans for new communities.

 

Jeff Bell is a public relations senior account executive with GlynnDevins, an advertising and marketing agency in Overland Park, Kan., that focuses on senior living. 

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