Senior living communities get a boost from technology

Innovative solutions support residents and help them stay connected with loved ones during the pandemic.

Pillars of Highland Park
At the Pillars of Highland Park in St. Paul, a daughter visits with her mother using the iN2L platform. Photo courtesy of Ebenezer

In March of 2020, when the world was in the thick of understanding the effects of the coronavirus, everyday life for thousands of Minnesota senior housing residents immediately needed to change. With guidelines put into place requiring masks and social distancing, and stay-at-home orders that kept family and friends from visiting loved ones, senior living administrators were challenged to shift from providing the high-touch care that their communities came to rely on to virtually no contact.

Armed with technology, creative problem-solving and their dedicated staff, senior living operators throughout the Twin Cities have swiftly taken a dismal situation and turned it into something fulfilling for everyone involved.

Can you see me now?

Videoconferencing has taken off in congregate living homes since the coronavirus erupted. “Zoom calls,” “FaceTiming” and “Skyping” are new terms that roll off elders’ tongues, while setting up these meetings have become a part of the staff ’s daily routine. “Without family, volunteers or vendors able to come in to help, we needed to quickly lean in to technology both for staff and our residents,” said Erin Hilligan, vice president of operations for Ebenezer, the senior housing arm of Fairview Health Services.

“Technology is such a blessing during COVID,” said Jamin Johnson, whose mom, Lorene, lives in an assisted living apartment in the Orchards of Minnetonka, a part of Ebenezer. “Every few days, my mom ‘sees’ our family in Indiana on the screen. She gets so much out of seeing my brother and his family on a regular basis. She’s celebrated birthdays, a graduation and even the 4th of July with them using live video technology. She’s safe but still an active part of the fun!” Lorene agrees. “Even the crazy dogs get in on the conversations,” she said. “This COVID’s for the birds. But ‘seeing’ my kids has made it okay.”

Virtual calls aren’t just for family chats and get-togethers. Senior housing has

leveraged this capability to continue with intergenerational programs (connecting young children with seniors) or to maintain a variety of classes once held in person but now happening remotely.

After losing her husband in 2017, Grace Templin packed up her most cherished belongings, including her writings from the last 50 years, and moved into Redeemer Health and Rehabilitation Center in Minneapolis, a Cassia community.

One of Templin’s favorite pastimes became weekly onsite writing sessions, which Templin’s teacher transitioned to Zoom. “Zoom has been great to use with my teacher because we can still see each other face-to-face,” said Templin. Staying connected and writing is what Templin credits with maintaining her positive attitude — that, and talking with her siblings on the phone and having the cowboy channel on her television all day.

Beam me in

Picture yourself walking and talking with your loved one while you’re in different locations. With two HDR cameras and one stellar audio system, a 52.9-inch-tall robot with a 10-inch LCD monitor allows you to do just that. Nicknamed “Beam” (because it uses Beam Telepresence Robot technology), the robot resides in a senior housing center. Outside of the center, family or caregivers can control the robot and have a virtual visit simply by logging into their computers from anywhere around the world.

Thanks to a generous donation, Cassia deployed eight of these a couple of years ago, but with only lukewarm reception as feedback. “Families and employees alike were slow to adopt having a robot as a substitute for a real person,” said Kate Ingalls-Maloney, director of Technology Integration and the Learning Lab at Cassia. “But when families were no longer able to visit for fear of spreading the coronavirus, the robot became much more appealing.”

Carla Smith and her parents, Jim (age 90) and Mary (age 93), residents of Haven Homes, another Cassia community, were first becoming acquainted with Beam back in March when they were featured on television locally on KARE and nationally on NBC. Using only the arrow keys to drive the robot, Smith now regularly “beams” in for visits, often chatting with employees as she looks for one parent or another on her virtual road trip around the facility.

“My mother is hard of hearing,” said Smith, “so the robot works pretty well with removing a lot of the ambient sound. Mom loves it because it is almost better than

being there in person. Without having to worry about wearing masks and staying six feet apart, she can hear me better than when we were in the room together.” Another advantage: Beam puts the caregiver in the “driver’s seat” without having to bother staff to coordinate or assist residents.

Robot pets allowed

Initially designed for children, robot pets have become popular with the older generation during the pandemic. “We strongly encourage pet toys due to the therapeutic benefits they can provide,” said Pam Hayle, director of Safety and Quality Support at Cassia. Hayle has observed the calming effects of a dog’s tail wagging or the purring of a cat while resting in a resident’s lap. In fact, a 2016 study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease indicated robot pets are effective in treating stress and anxiety in patients with dementia.

It’s never too late

Founded in 1999, iN2L (It’s Never 2 Late) pioneered and is the leading provider
of in-person-centered content, creating meaningful experiences while connecting older adults to the world around them through the use of 10-inch tablets and 23- or 70-inch touch screens.

Many senior living communities across the Twin Cities offer iN2L, with which staff work directly with the resident and/or their caregiver to build a library of content to the resident’s liking, which they can use to learn a new skill, play a game, practice yoga or simply view preloaded videos and photos that they can watch at their leisure. Administrators and families agree these devices offer many benefits, especially during COVID-19.

Virtual worship and spirituality

Staff administrators have designed ways to continue providing worship and/or spirituality options for residents while they need to stay apart. Cassia uses Echo Dots for a homegrown intercom system, The Goodman Group sets up Zoom calls and spiritual discussions, and Ebenezer offers sermons on YouTube.

Residents love the services and some would even like them to be longer. “I love listening to your sermons and the Ebenezer worship services on YouTube,” said Joyce Traczyk, a resident at The Orchards. “You do a wonderful job. But they are missing a couple of Lutheran elements and they are way too short! I’m just getting into them and then they cut out at 30 minutes.”

robot pet
Since the pandemic began, caregivers have been providing robot pets for residents to help them feel less isolated. Photo courtesy of Cassia Life

The game must go on!

Just saying the word “bingo” conjures up images of older adults, multiple cards and ink blotters (aka “daubers”) in hand, while enjoying the social aspects of playing this time-tested game. So, when the pandemic hit, activity directors everywhere needed to adjust to playing safely at a distance. In many communities, bingo is happening in hallways. At a Goodman Group setting, dialing into a single conference line allows residents to play virtually, with cards delivered via gift baskets to their rooms.

Bringing it all together

These are only a few of the many ways providers are using technology to support those in their care. Leadership and employees across senior living communities are continuing to innovate and test exciting solutions, such as virtual concierge assistants, digital onboarding for new residents and outfitting rooms with more devices. Yet no matter how great the technology, people are still needed for it to be successful.

At Cassia and elsewhere, health care workers have partnered closely with administrators to find no-contact methods in aiding residents. “Those who enter this line of work are incredibly social, giving, loving people who thrive on providing hands-on care,” said Hayle, “so it has been challenging for staff during COVID-19.” It’s clear that the dedication and creativity of front-line employees are helping to cushion the impact of the coronavirus while still meeting residents’ needs. Technology solutions put in place this year are game-changing. Yet they don’t replace personal connections.

“Technology is a tool that helps us to stay connected, especially during the pandemic,” says Hilligan, “but it is the blending of relationships with technology that is critical in providing the best care.”

Sheryl Stillman is a former retail executive turned consultant and freelance writer. Residing in Minnetonka, she is the proud mom of two and a cockapoo. Learn more at