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July 30, 2020

(Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Nursing home residents are at high risk for COVID-19, according to the CDC. As July 1, more than 80 percent of coronavirus deaths in the U.S. were among people 65 and over, their recent report showed.

Faced with this unprecedented challenge, operators of senior housing communities worldwide are scrambling to rapidly embrace technologies that will keep residents and essential workers safe.

The sector is increasingly investing in technologies that range from telehealth to service-oriented robots with a wide range of functionality. These changes will significantly advance operators’ ability to handle the coming “silver tsunami” of 73 million baby boomers in the U.S. who will all be over the age of 65 by 2030, says Zach Bowyer, Managing Director, JLL.

“What the pandemic has done is it’s forced operators to step back and say, ‘We have this problem to solve — and we need to solve it now,” Bowyer says. “It’s expedited the technological progress needed to prepare for the population that will be entering senior housing communities over the next decade.”

The U.S. is just one of more than 34 countries that will be “super-aged” by 2030, meaning 1 in 5 people are over 65. Germany and Japan are already there. In the U.S., 16 percent of the population is elderly, and it’s expected to rise to 20 percent in the next 10 years.

The demographic shifts don’t just turbo-boost demand for seniors housing. It’s expected that the baby boomer generation will transform nearly all aspects of seniors housing in much the same way that they redefined other life stages.

“Boomers want options and they want more control, which is not necessarily the case with the current generation of seniors,” says Bowyer. “And technology provides a lot of those things.”

Robot visits

Isolation has been a major issue for seniors in communities under lockdown. But robots, such as temi from the software company Connected Living, have come to the rescue.

These robots are equipped with video screens, enabling them to connect residents with family, friends and physicians.

“The robot will come in the room and announce who has called, and that person’s face will pop up,” says Bowyer. “They are being adapted in all sorts of creative ways and bringing a whole new level of excitement to senior living communities.”

Many communities, including Maplewood Senior Living’s Manhattan location, had already started using these self-navigating devices to automate foodservice tasks. As the pandemic worsened, they were tasked with sanitizing surfaces and performing hands-free temperature checks.

Eastmont Senior Living in Lincoln, Nebraska, recently rolled out two disinfection robots from a company called SkyTron. The robots, which use UVC light to kill bacteria and viruses, take between 11 and 24 minutes to clean a room, according to Eastmont staff.

New technologies, from voice-activated controls to “clear connection” panels enabling socially distant digital visits with family, are being installed in senior facilities worldwide, says Audrey Symes, Director of Research for Healthcare, Life Sciences and Advisory, JLL.

“Technological adoption would not have happened as quickly if not for the pandemic,” she says. “The intensity of COVID-19 protocols and the scarcity of staff forced a tipping point, especially for telehealth. Once it reached a critical mass, systems could collaborate on new solutions.”

Telehealth

Out of necessity, the adoption of telehealth in senior housing facilities has accelerated as virtual physician appointments have become the norm during the pandemic.

According to the CEO of VitalTech, a virtual health platform based in Dallas, the company eclipsed its 2020 projections in a single month this spring.

“One of the biggest roadblocks that was impeding telehealth was the inability of healthcare systems to communicate with each other,” Symes says. “But with hospital staff stretched thin and the need to follow COVID-19 protocols, the pandemic has forced that tipping point, and solutions are emerging.”

Increasing telehealth services frees up medical staff to spend more quality time with residents in need by triaging less acute cases, Symes says. These efficiencies will be increasingly necessary as baby boomers begin to hit peak demand levels by 2029, according to a NIC Middle Market Seniors Housing Study.

The industry would need to deliver an additional 45,000 seniors housing units a year starting now in order to keep pace, according to JLL research.

“The newly-pioneered technologies will be essential in providing the best care — medical, cognitive and emotional — to the upcoming wave of seniors,” Symes says

Clean air

Coronavirus is transmitted through airborne particles, and HVAC systems can make or break whether the air is healthy for residents.

The increased importance of air filtration is accelerating the adoption of HVAC technology. For example, senior care company Lifetime Wellness is collaborating with Pure Wellness, which creates purification systems for hotels and other spaces, to provide medical-grade air purifiers for senior care facilities.

The products use a “multi-stage proprietary disinfection system” that claims to be 40 times more effective at eliminating harmful particles than a HEPA filter.

Much like how office buildings are re-evaluating their HVAC systems to focus on clean air and its relationship with employee health, senior living communities will find future residents and their families making choices based on factors that include air quality, Bowyer says.

“Many developers and operators are upping their games when it comes to their air filtration systems,” he says. “Before COVID-19, it was one of those things that wasn’t identified as a huge need. But even when there is a vaccine, air quality will be a focus, as will anything that contributes to the health and wellness of residents.”

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Zach Bowyer

Managing Director, JLL.

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