Call it virtual assisted living: Seniors can stay in their own homes longer thanks to these pandemic hacks

Fay, a 51-year old mother of twins manages a full-time job as an X-ray technician and, as she sardonically describes, spends “oodles of her free time” helping her aging parents.

Sandwiched between caring for both young and old, she describes her routine, “When I am not at the hospital, taking care of my own house, taking the boys to practice or to SAT prep, or to whatever else they do, I am helping my folks.” 

Rolling her eyes, she looks away and remarks, “On my day off I would take one or both of them grocery shopping. It was an all-day affair.” 

Online grocery shopping became a lifeline to many during the pandemic. Estimates suggest that online grocery shopping increased five times faster than forecast before COVID-19. Acosta Shopper Community Survey recently reported that 23% of respondents said they plan to increase their online grocery shopping over the next year. Another nearly two-thirds (64%) plan to continue shopping online at levels adopted during the pandemic.

Trends in online grocery shopping would not ordinarily intersect with discussions of senior housing. Online grocery buying, however, is indicative of the services and technologies adopted during the pandemic that are likely to change the decision calculus of older adults and their families when considering senior housing.

The pandemic made Fay’s former shopping routine impossible. She did not want to expose her parents or herself to possible infection. She signed up online with her local grocery store and arranged for home delivery.

“It became so easy that I signed up my family too,” Fay says. “That little change saved me nearly a full day of my life wandering up and down store aisles.”

As the pandemic unfolded, MIT AgeLab research showed increasing interest and adoption of online services as well as technology. Younger and older adults reported that during the pandemic the use of video chat, smart speakers, door cameras, and tablets became more attractive.

Read: Are you healthy enough to retire?

High-tech increasingly was filling a gap where high-touch was not always possible. Recent trends in online grocery shopping indicate what many might have guessed, as the pandemic ebbs, apps are not being deleted from phones, devices are not being packed back into boxes, and shopping for exciting purchases such as towels and tuna fish are best done online.

People like Fay and her parents effectively hacked an entirely new option to senior housing — virtual assisted living. Nearly everything from online groceries, to delivery of household staples and medications, reduced, if not eliminated, the travel and time demands on family caregivers.

Read: Living longer often means more years spent with serious illness — how to increase your health span

Smart technologies once considered novelties provided a means not just to stay in contact, but to check in on how mom and dad were doing as well as to ensure their security by ‘seeing’ who might be at their door. Older adults also discovered that this new virtual assisted lifestyle not only reduces demands on adult children, but promises the possibility to extend the capacity to remain in the home they love.

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The implications for the senior housing industry are both immediate and longer term. The discussion, let alone the decision, to move to senior living can now be delayed by many. While showing modest improvement, senior housing resident numbers, down since the pandemic, are likely to experience a sluggish recovery not necessarily due to continued pandemic fears, but due to tech-enabled services that families and older adults see as an alternative to moving.

The average age of assisted living residents has been increasing long before COVID-19 — average new resident age is now in the mid-80s. Virtual assisted living is likely to further delay entering senior housing thereby further increasing the average age of new residents.

With increased resident age often comes additional functional challenges and disease acuity — exacerbating the impact of the industry’s staffing crisis and making operations more complex and costly.

While virtual assisted living does greatly increase the competitive advantage of home over senior housing, there is a bright spot for investors and operators. Today’s model of senior housing is predicated on experience, care, and place.

The convergence of technology, consumer behavior, and pandemic effects have put senior housing investors and operators at a strategic crossroads. Just as the grocery business has discovered that it must serve its customer in both the store aisle as well as the customer’s front porch, the senior housing industry must decide if they will continue to base their value proposition only on the delivery of experience and care in their home, or wherever the consumer and their families choose to call home.

Joseph Coughlin, Ph.D., leads the Massachusetts Institute of Technology AgeLab. Researcher, teacher, speaker, and adviser, Coughlin examines the market and societal implications of consumer behavior and technology trends across the generations. His recent book is The Longevity Economy: Unlocking The World’s Fastest-Growing, Most Misunderstood Market. Follow him on Twitter @josephcoughlin.

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