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Technology has accelerated the maturity of senior living
Technology has accelerated the transformation of the UK’s senior living sector. Antiquated notions of retirement homes as sleepy rural nursing homes are long behind us. Demographic tailwinds, supported by Baby Boomers’ purchasing power and decades of underinvestment in purpose-built prime senior housing, have drawn institutional investment towards this highly scalable sector. Together, these drivers have aligned to create multi-generational smart retirement villages with new operating models.
Technology has been one of the driving forces behind the transformation of the senior living sector. It is one of the four pillars – alongside public health, safety and wellbeing; demographics; and climate change and sustainability – that will define future real estate design, utilisation and demand in the 2020s.
Emerging digital infrastructure, such as 5G connectivity, artificial intelligence (AI) and the internet of things (IoT) applications, have transformed home environments. This futuristic picture is already a reality in Scotland’s first smart retirement village, developed by Commsworld and retailTRUST. In the Hugh Fraser Retirement Estate in Newton Mearns, East Renfrewshire, Amazon’s Alexa platform provides smart controls for everything from doorbells, to lighting, home temperature, and blinds, telephone calls, virtual assistance, refrigerators and operating the radio.
Health and safety priorities are managed through telehealth systems, which use multi-party video conferencing between health professionals and patients. Telehealth apps use monitors, sensors and wearables to support independent living and those in need of care to live self-sufficiently. These apps can collect residents’ vital health data at home (e.g., weight, pulse, blood pressure, blood glucose, lung capacity, etc.), as part of expansive home monitoring systems, as offered by Alcove AI and Canary Care, replacing reactive care with a proactive and preventative model. For elderly residents, smart devices, including sensors and pressure pads, can detect sudden falls. Vayyar Home offers similar technology and can also detect smoke and track residents’ location tracking, with GPS wearables or with a virtual staff member for every room, if required.
Elsewhere, age-related health conditions, such as menopause, dementia, and chronic pain management are supported by home-installed technologies by firms such as Virtue Health. Technology can also support physical and mental wellbeing, including by virtual reality (VR). For example, MyndVR has created a vast library of VR content for senior living communities designed to improve cognitive health and wellness, as well as to entertain. Research shows ‘virtual reminiscence therapy’ reduces anxiety and depression. For example, VR can activate reminiscence with photos, foods, smells and music. MyndVR says these non-pharmacological interventions can improve self-esteem and provide older people with a sense of fulfilment through reliving and talking about past life experiences. Physical wellbeing is supported through online personal training to improve fitness, nutritional content scanning systems to monitor and improve compliance with healthier diets.
Many of these technologies offer overlapping benefits with other senior living pillars of design, demand and utilisation: energy sustainability and community integration. Technology can optimise sustainable energy consumption, by measuring temperature, light and movement. The collected data collected can detect energy wastage and encourage the user to change behaviour to reduce energy bills. Similarly, collected data can support social interactions, diet and help maintain connections with family, friends, and the broader retirement village community. Other technologies provide education and entertainment through interactive gaming, music therapy, and video content oriented to residents’ age and cognitive abilities. GrandCare is another pioneering US age-tech firm that provides remote activity and vitals monitoring and telehealth video conferencing. Within communities, messaging and shared calendars connect households. These technologies can help combat loneliness and keep elderly and isolated residents connected with the world around them in new ways.
All these tech solutions have dramatically risen in adoption during the pandemic, where family visits are restricted. For example, incremental telehealth app adoption has catapulted to mass product maturity, with years of progress condensed into mere months. For example, VitalTech, a Dallas-based specialist, claims more than 60% of people now prefer telehealth services over in-person clinic visits in the US. Coronavirus has also increased attention on air filtration and HVAC technology adoption, which regulates air and water quality. Lifetime Wellness and Pure Wellness have partnered to provide advanced air purification technology solutions for senior living communities. It is another example of age-tech increasing the sophistication of senior living.
Crucially, to maximise the impact of technology innovation there must be alignment between all stakeholders: from developers, residents, operators, owners, investors to lenders. Financial impacts will differ between technology types. For example, sustainable technologies which reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions also reduce operating costs, generate a premium price and tend to sell quicker, according to 2018 study. Separately, 5G Wi-Fi will rapidly become core infrastructure and thus installation costs (which will fall over time) will incurred by developers, and passed on in price. Elsewhere, technologies which require sensors, wearables and pressure pads, will command a premium price or a subscription charge, which would likely be rolled into annual property and facilities management fees. Partnerships between developers, senior living operators and technology specialists will become widespread to maximise innovation awareness, adoption and cost effectiveness.
The UK’s ageing population provides context for the sector’s investable scale. Higher life expectancy and lower birth rates will markedly change the UK’s demographics. In the next 20 years, the UK population will increase by almost 6 million – 99% of that net national population growth is among people 55 years and older, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) projections.
Senior living and smart retirement villages will become an increasing part of the residential lifecycle in the decade to come. The Associated Retirement Community Operators (ARCO), which represents the UK retirement community sector, aims to increase the number of people living in retirement villages from 70,000 to 250,000 by 2030. Technology will support that objective and enable compliance with increased expectations, standards and regulations, further broadening the sector’s appeal and providing future opportunities for developers and operators.