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Forget rotary phones and dial-up internet. Modern-day senior housing could just as likely to feature voice activation and virtual reality, with the technology industry turning attention to an often-overlooked generation of customers.
And with an aging population bringing a growing demand for senior-living communities in Connecticut and beyond, companies that build them, including Westport-based Maplewood Senior Living, are following a growing trend as they look to provide the latest in quality-of life technology for their residents.
“We are taking every opportunity to inject all sorts of new technology from iPad to smart boards to even telemedicine,” said CEO Greg Smith, touring one of the company’s newest developments in Fairfield. “The technology that we’re putting into this building is something that is truly unique for us and even for the industry itself.”
As development of Maplewood Southport continues, the company is integrating tablets and smart screens, Amazon Alexa with voice activation, and even virtual reality into the community’s daily operations.
With locations in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York and Ohio, the upscale senior living company will be debuting its 98-unit facility at 17 Mill Hill Terrace, in Fairfield by June on a 27-acre parcel just off Interstate 95.
Among Maplewood’s amenities are “smart apartments” that allow residents to control appliances including lights, temperature and the television. They can also let people communicate with staff and family while providing information on dining menus and scheduled events upon command.
“We’re leveraging Amazon and Alexa technology to do that now,” Brian Geyser, Maplewood’s vice president of clinical innovation and population health.
Virtual reality systems, provided by Rendever, can be used for recreational tours as well as in some cases as therapy for residents with dementia, offering the possibility of people visiting childhood homes or other much-loved locations.
“It’s so pleasurable for them to go back in time because that’s where they feel they are in their mind, and so we’re able to bring them back in time using virtual reality,” Geyser said, adding that the company has plans to retrofit some of its newest technology features into its existing communities.
Technology isn’t new to the senior and assisted living industry, but it has grown as a crucial component to improving care, for people at home or elsewhere, according to industry experts.
“We’re finding assisted technology is incredibly helpful as part of an overall plan of care to keep a person in their home,” said Marie Allen, executive director of the Southwestern Connecticut Agency on Aging.
The Bridgeport-based agency focuses on improving the care of seniors through funding and resource programs geared toward allowing residents to age in place. SWCAA helps more than 3,500 people who are receiving at-home care with a combination of human assistance and technology including emergency response, video cameras, telemedicine and telehealth equipment and more.
That array of devices has recently extended into the smart-tech realm with companies like Apple and Amazon breaking new ground on ease of use.
Apple’s latest version of its smart watch serves as an example, with its electric heart sensor and new fall-detection feature that can summon help if the wearer is unconscious or immobilized.
“These are things that we never had in the past and couldn’t use to supplement care plans,” Allen said.
The growing list of devices has created a means for more cost-effective home care, according to Allen, who said people can receive nursing-home-level care from their homes for roughly half the price they’d pay to live elsewhere.
SWCAA is the state contractor for Medicaid, which Allen said helps pay for a variety of assisted living and emergency detection devices and software. “Tech is one thing that does cross all different demographics from the low income to the most affluent,” she said.
But even as tech finds new customers, generational difference remain. For many people, depending on devices and trusting them to do what they’re supposed to goes against a lifetime of experience.
“Everyone who is creating new products in the market that could have an impact on people who are 50-plus needs to understand that their design process is going to be different,” said Kyle Rand, co-founder and CEO of Boston-based tech company Rendever, which focuses on adapting virtual reality systems for seniors. “Because those people have grown up in a much different world.”