Senior Living Operators Take Cues From Apple’s ‘Genius Bar’ With Tech Concierge Roles

Older adults have embraced technology amid the pandemic to stay connected — and that has given rise to a relatively new type of community position: the tech concierge.

One part akin to an Apple Genius, one part senior living worker, these staffers are capable of handling tech support for residents with the skill of an activities director who is fluent in customer service. And given the number of older adults using an ever-complicated array of voice-activated, smart-home and wearable wellness devices, it is a position a growing number of operators are adopting.

Watermark Retirement Communities is one senior living operator that took that approach. Not long ago, the company employed just one employee across its entire portfolio whose job it was to aid residents with technology. Now, the Tucson, Arizona-based company is building the role into the workforce of each of the 67 communities it operates.

“Our tech concierge ended up being a critical part of the programming team, because they are delivering rich programming, learning and advising residents,” said Tammy Farris, director of strategic innovation at Watermark Retirement Communities. “Each resident is different and has a different level of tech literacy with different needs. “They’re able to evaluate and create a network for residents that need help so that they can thrive while staying connected.”

Watermark is not the only company that sees the tech concierge as a position of growing importance. For Westport, Connecticut-based Maplewood Senior Living, which owns and operates 15 communities across four states, tech concierges are part of a holistic effort to improve resident health outcomes by using sensor systems, AI and robotics. Chicago-based Vi and Exeter, New Hampshire-based The RiverWoods Group, both of which operate life plan communities, have also leaned on tech concierges to help residents get a handle on tech, with leaders at Vi comparing the concept to Apple’s Genius Bar. And as the role evolves, operators are also grappling with the important question of how to pay for it in their operating budgets.

The bottom line for operators is that more residents than ever before are using technological devices, and the industry must cater to those needs and wants.

“We’re going to see all positions requiring more technology integration and skill at all levels of a community, from dining to administration to housekeeping,” Farris said. “There’s going to be a higher level of technology acceptance and literacy going forward.”

Defining the role

Over the years, IT staffers have gotten a bad rap as people who are technically skilled with computers, but not always with a customer service touch.

But senior living tech concierges breaks the mold of the back-office IT staffer by combining tech-wizard skills with the friendliness of an activities director or lifestyle coordinator.

The tech concierge role is particularly important at Maplewood’s Inspir Carnegie Hill community in New York City, which is equipped with a complicated array of technology, including a tech suite called Alli that connects residents to virtual reality, auditory enhancement services, resident safety systems and live streaming classes. Inspir Carnegie Hill is also a luxury community catering to a high-end clientele with rates starting north of $12,000.

“They need the technical know-how, but also the service delivery ability with that hospitality while understanding how to interact with older adults,” said Brian Geyser, Maplewood Senior Living’s vice president of clinical innovation and population health, and chief clinical officer of the Inspiring brand. It’s a specialized role in that way.”

Geyser was brought on at Maplewood five years ago to specifically find ways to leverage innovation with a focus on technology to provide better care and services for residents. Maplewood was the first assisted living company in the country to roll out virtual reality systems into all of its communities in 2017, and an early adopter of senior living robotics.

“We certainly see the need, and the demand is increasing for these types of support services,” Geyser said.

Watermark currently has one full-time tech concierge position at each community, totaling around 20 such workers; While “three or four” positions are added each month across the portfolio, Farris said.

United Methodist Communities sought tech-savvy applicants with strong social skills to fill its three tech concierge roles, according to Director of IT Travis Gleinig.

“We wanted to get someone who was able to solve problems that residents have with a strong customer service ability,” Gleinig said. “It’s those intangible benefits that make this position so valuable.”

Neptune, New Jersey-based United Methodist Communities operates 12 communities in New Jersey.

At Vi’s La Jolla community near San Diego, California, the operator ran a series of 90-day pilots for tech support for residents to determine the community’s appetite for the concierge role, according to Tony Galvan, assistant vice president of living well for the company .

With flexibility in mind, Vi offered tech support and in-person assistance to residents who participated in the program with Galvan likening the service and its offerings to the Apple Store’s Genius Bar.

“I see it being a combination,” Galvan said. “I see that with our pilots today, residents have a willingness to pay for some of this and I see that being much more popular and enticing.”

The need to survey residents prior to implementing a tech concierge position is critical, said Jessica Longly with CDW Healthcare, especially as older adults get more used to using technology and demographics shift ahead of the so-called baby boomer tsunami.

“Gain an understanding of what use case or cases you are trying to solve, define what success will look like, understand how it will impact the resident’s day-to-day lives, and ask the staff how a technology could potentially give them time back in their day,” Longley said.

Services in a senior living community are typically paid through resident rates, with possibly some a la carte options for residents on top. But technology is a little harder to track and budget for, given it is a nebulous category that could technically include everything from devices to labor, and operators vary on how they pay for it.

At Inspir, Maplewood bakes costs of the concierge position into the company’s normal staffing budget. That is also the case for United Methodist

The RiverWoods Group employs five tech concierges at its three communities and funds the position with a portion of residents’ monthly service fees, according to RiverWoods Group Chief Information Officer David Lafferty.

Underscoring the need for the tech concierge role is the growing complex of technology employed in senior living communities — not to mention the devices that residents and their families are bringing along.

In the coming years, Geyser said he thinks more developers could integrate technology and support into their building plans, as Maplewood did with Inspir. On the horizon, he sees advanced sensor technology and even robotics making their way into senior living communities.

“What we’ve found is that family members are really pushing for these things,” Geyser said. “They want it so the demand is definitely there and it’s going to increase.”

Watermark is also exploring smart home environments with voice activation to allow residents to control features within their units, and Farris sees technology such as devices that track biometric data or prevent and predict falls playing an even greater role in operations going forward.

“The ability for technology to be part of the life-saving continuum of care is definitely coming,” Farris said

More tech savvy needed

Although the tech concierge role has not yet become a senior living community fixture similar to activities directors, more operators see an even greater need for technology savvy in the years ahead.

Lafferty said he sees a day fast approaching when substantially all senior living staff must be trained and competent with all of the technology used in a community. Galvan echoed that thought, and said he can envision a not-too-distant-future where all lifestyle staff within communities have varying levels of technical education around the basics of IT..

“Technology will become so entwined with resident safety, wellness and socialization that it will be woven into services residents enjoy in our communities,” Galvan said. “I think every member of our team will ultimately need to embrace that technology and become equally versed in assisting our residents.

In the future, Farris sees a greater need for technology that both improves residents’ lives and their health outcomes, such as . artificial intelligence and non-invasive resident monitoring, Farris said.

“I think what we are going to see is not necessarily more technology positions,” Farris said. “We’re going to see all positions requiring more technology integration and skill at all levels of a community, from dining to administration to housekeeping.”

And to Geyser, it is not a matter of if, but when this occurs.

“I think [the] ‘when’ is going to be determined on the type of product and the type of market you are in,” Geyser said.

But at the end of the day, execution of quality services comes down to staff at each community, Farris noted.

“We’re always going to be humans taking care of humans,” she said. “That won’t change but what will change is going to be the technology and how we use that to continue to provide care more effectively and efficiently.”

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