Written by Cassandra Dowell

Senior living providers are finding that no longer does a computer lab satisfy the requirements of tech-savvy residents. 

Increasingly, the onset of tech use among residents in their 70s, 80s and 90s is pushing communities well beyond simply providing devices and an internet connection they can access in common areas. That means wifi throughout the community or campus and creating Internet cafe-like areas that also serve as social settings.

Computer labs and business centers in senior housing communities are less important to senior living prospects today than they were two years ago, says Patti Aspenleiter, president of senior marketing agency Zillner, adding that the finding can be attributed to the increase in tablet and e-reader ownership in the last four years.

As seniors become accustomed to the latest technology in their homes, they expect the same when opting for their next place to live.

“Seniors have choices,” Aspenleiter says. “Seventy-one percent of seniors go online every day. It’s almost as common as using a meal plan. The main competitor of senior living communities is the home. If they can use that e-reader and iPad anywhere in their house and now they can only use that tablet in a computer room — that is a significant disadvantage.”

In fact, overall tablet ownership among seniors has risen from 2% in 2010 to 25% this year, research shows.

And more seniors are accessing the Internet from their cell phone, supporting the need for campus-wide wifi.

In the last five years, the number of seniors going online from their phone has quadrupled from 7% in 2009 to 29% today.

The growing number of seniors using mobile devices and going online antiquates the idea of a “computer room,” Aspenleiter says, adding that providers who wish to attract future residents — many of whom will be baby boomers and even more tech-savvy than the current senior population — would be wise to adopt campus-wide wifi to support such products.

Wifi Is a Must

For providers like San Antonio,Texas-based Morningside Ministries, offering wifi was important to resident satisfaction.

“Five or four years ago a resident asked for wifi,” says Leo Cutcliff, executive vice president for Morningside Ministries. All three of the provider’s San Antonio-area senior housing campuses are continuing care retirement communities (CCRCs). While the CCRCs provided some type of Internet, Morningside began to roll out wifi to all of its campuses and continues to add wifi to its buildings undergoing redevelopment and its cottage properties.

Cutcliff sees seniors’ growing use of mobile devices firsthand — some residents lead and attend iPad training classes every Saturday.

“It’s interesting to hear a 92-year-old tell residents how her Kindle was synchronized to her iPad,” he says, adding that using the mobile devices creates increased dialogue among residents and between residents and their families.

“I recall 10 years ago we would get numerous cold calls about video teleconferencing with families,” he says. “We would have to get cameras and residents would have to schedule a time. Now with [Apple’s mobile video conference platform] FaceTime, they can talk to each other from anywhere at any time.”

Texas-based Buckner Retirement Services, Inc. began rolling out wifi at its campuses in 2006. And while the communities still have designated areas where residents can use computers, many residents have laptops or other mobile devices of their own. Buckner operates five CCRCs and two independent living communities in Texas.

“Our residents use technology to check bank accounts, investments, retirement accounts, order products, print maps for travel,” says Kenneth Harpster, chaplain and go-to technology support person. “Some use it to access books for their e-readers; others use social media such as Facebook. Almost all who use the technology use it to stay in touch with family through email.”

Internet Cafe Design Supports Learning

And while offering wifi is a start, offering additional programming and spaces to educate residents on how to get the most out of their mobile devices via Internet is key, says Ginna Baik, national director of innovation and resident technology with the life enrichment team at Emeritus.

“If you can provide a space for training then you can get residents to fully experience the benefit of their smartphone, or iPad,” Baik says. “Some are intimidated by technology, but when you bridge that connection that level of empowerment and how it changes their self image is priceless.”

At Emeritus, whose $2.8 billion merger with Brookdale Senior Living will form the largest senior living provider in the nation, a new pilot program including some of its Illinois, Indiana and Missouri transforms common areas into Internet cafes.

Residents can also borrow mobile tablets for use, Baik says, adding that after using a tablet many decided to purchase their own. The pilot was rolled out September last year.

“In the Internet cafe we’re not just focused on the technology, but the seating and look and feel,” she says, adding that large-screen computers are also available for those who have trouble seeing the smaller, tablet screen. “It’s not a sterile, business environment with computers along a wall. It’s no longer grandma’s nursing home.”

While all those communities are wireless, so that seniors can get online where and when they want to, the Internet cafe spaces encourage conversation among residents and serve as an education space. And, more communities throughout the Emeritus network are slated to become wireless if they’re not already.

“With the merger things will change, but Brookdale has the same mindset [about providing the latest technology],” she says. “It’s important to both Emeritus and Brookdale.”