Tablet computers, apps aren’t just for millennials

Jeff Pepper is president and CEO of Oakmont, Pa.-based Touchtown, a company providing a wide range of lifestyle and emergency communication products for senior living communities. Jeff Pepper is president and CEO of Oakmont, Pa.-based Touchtown, a company providing a wide range of lifestyle and emergency communication products for senior living communities.

Technology help seniors' quality of life and generates cost savings for operators

By Jeff Pepper

A couple of years ago, my mother, at the age of 89, sold her house and moved to a continuing care retirement community (CCRC) just up the road from my office in the Pittsburgh area. She enjoys the activities and the worry-free lifestyle, but I know she sometimes feels isolated and disconnected. 

She’s not the only one. Social isolation is common for many seniors, especially those living alone, whether it’s in their own home or in senior living communities. That’s why my company, Touchtown, exists. We’ve been working for 14 years to help people like my mom stay in touch as they age. 

Technology changes over time, of course, and so we’ve adapted our products to new platforms. Touchtown Lifestyle products already run on personal computers, televisions and digital signs, but we’ve recently been amazed by the explosive growth in tablet use among older adults. 

That’s why we decided to build Touchtown Resident Apps, a set of senior-friendly applications that run on tablets as well as personal computers. These apps help residents stay in touch with community life and are delivering quality-of-life benefits. The apps also offer real business benefits. 

Senior living providers are embracing ways to boost their bottom line by streamlining operations, and the apps product can also lead to an uptick in occupancy rates. The first early adopters of Touchtown Resident Apps started their rollouts earlier this year. 

As you might expect, the surging use of technology by seniors has led a handful of companies to develop related products. There are key differences in the features and services offered by companies operating in this space, as well as in the hardware and operating systems supported. 

Additionally, some cater specifically to seniors still living at home, and others to a range of hospitality categories that include hotels and resorts. Touchtown is focused on and designed for senior living in a community setting.

Tablet usage, research

Before explaining more about how the apps work, let me first explain why tablet apps are enjoying success at senior living communities. Fifty-three percent of adults 65 and older go online and 86 percent of those seniors use email, according to the Pew Research Center (see “Snapshot of seniors in the digital age”).

A Cybercitizen Health U.S. study conducted by Manhattan Research shows a dramatic increase in the number of older adults using tablets for health activities and resources. In 2012, the number of U.S. adults using tablets for these purposes grew to 29 million, doubling that of the previous year. Among older adults (55+) who use or own a tablet, nearly half are using these devices for health information or tools. 

 Another recent study found that seniors using tablets for communication and research report better moods, higher life satisfaction, feeling more uplifted and generally more fulfilled. T.J. McCallum, Ph.D., a psychologist and professor at Case Western Reserve University, conducted the study, “The Impact of Tablet Usage on Social Engagement among Older Adults.” These findings are characteristics that all retirement communities strive to achieve.

Platforms for success

Touchtown Resident Apps provides a platform for residents to stay connected through a wide range of apps, including activity sign-ups, daily check-ins, instant messages, transportation requests, dining
information, housekeeping services, resident satisfaction surveys, staff and resident directories and health resources.

Residents can make reservations at an on-campus restaurant, sign up for an exercise class or request a housekeeping visit, all at the touch of their finger. There are more than 20 apps to choose from, all of them customizable on a community and individual level. 

The apps are senior-friendly, which means they’re designed for even the most tech-averse residents. We’re seeing near 100 percent adoption rates among independent living residents. One reason, of course, is useful content. But we’ve also worked hard to design the apps to be easy for older adults to use successfully. 

All apps have the same basic design, so residents can quickly grasp them. The apps use large easy-to-understand icons and large text, straightforward and simple options, easy navigation, scrolling ability and a text-to-speech feature. Font size and complexity are easily adjustable to meet each resident’s needs. And there is no advertising or visual clutter on the screen. 

Impact on quality of life

Mary Johnson is an 84-year-old resident at Clermont Park in Denver, part of the Christian Living Communities organization. Every resident of Clermont Park received a tablet computer and the Touchtown Resident Apps. 

Johnson helps teach fellow residents how to successfully use this new technology. Residents are starting by using the apps for sharing messages, daily check-ins, getting dining menus and information, and signing up for activities at the community. 

Their uses are growing from there. Johnson says any skepticism about something new and different quickly went away when seniors realized how easy and fun the tablet is to use. 

Jill Vitale-Aussem, executive director of Clermont Park, says the apps promote interaction and an added sense of freedom. Tama Carey, executive director at Longwood at Oakmont, a continuing care retirement community in Pittsburgh, says the tablet computers are an excellent way to maintain and reinforce residents’ perception of their own independence.  

Business solutions

Staff at senior living communities can spend a lot of time fielding relatively minor questions or requests from residents involving dining, home maintenance, activities or health information. Apps can be integrated into operational tools/platforms to help community’s streamline and better manage backend systems.

By integrating Resident Apps into existing workflow or point of sale systems, residents can request services or get information at the touch of a finger. 

For dining, the apps provide updated daily menus for every eatery at a community. The system will soon allow residents to make dining reservations, manage complex meal plans and track account information, eliminating current hard-copy materials.

For home maintenance, it can cut the labor cost of creating and fulfilling work orders, while providing a centralized management solution. 

The ability of apps means residents don’t have to pick up a phone or drop into someone’s office every time they have a question or request. Your staff can spend more time making your organization better and focusing on having higher-value interactions with the residents. 

One retirement community uses Resident Apps to boost occupancy rates by offering a free tablet computer with the apps to every new resident, something prospects and leads find attractive.

The setup and customization of Touchtown Resident Apps at a senior living community starts at $5,000, and the monthly fee varies depending on the size of the community. 

Seniors’ growing adoption of technology, particularly tablets, and easier access to tools and information is propelling a shift from occasional to regular use. All signs point to products like Resident Apps helping address one of the biggest challenges in senior living — social isolation. 

It’s so gratifying for me to now see it bringing older people back in touch with meaningful and fulfilling activities, and making a difference in people’s lives.

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