Technology can build community among residents’ families, staff

Message to Lori Yoder:

“Today I met Herb in the hall, and he said, ‘Hi there, trouble,’ and I responded with ‘I thought we were buddies?’ His response was, ‘We are; that’s why we can talk like this to each other.’ I love that guy.”

—Audrey Christman, Supervisor, Housekeeping/Laundry Services, Waterford Crossing, Goshen, Ind.

Message to Waterford Crossing:

“This is what I like about WC. A friendly, joking atmosphere that is perfect for my dad, who loves to rib people. You just have to take everything he says with a grain of salt.”

—Lori Yoder (daughter of Herb), Glendale, Ariz.

The above exchange, conducted via a web-based platform called Smile, is a wonderful expression of my organization’s motto: “Celebrating and Supporting Life’s Journey.”

Too often in long-term care, we only communicate with families when a problem occurs:

  • “Mom fell.”
  • “Dad’s condition is declining.”
  • “Mom had an issue with her meds.”

Rarely does a staffer pick up the phone and say, “I had such a fun time with your mom today. She won the prize for the best outfit for Crazy Dress-Up Day.”

Using modern communications technology, my team at Waterford Crossing in Goshen, Ind., can instantly celebrate the fulfilling parts of our residents’ lives with their families through words, photos, audio and video.

Supplementing existing efforts

Before rolling out use of the cloud-based platform this year, we already had worked hard on communicating. We have a weekly newsletter called The Grapevine, which is available to all the residents and families via email or our website. It conveys community news and lists all upcoming activities. Our executive director, Bryan Mierau, also produces The Infogram, a monthly publication that relays the big picture of where our organization is headed and the major events on the horizon. It is sent with our billing statements. Our staff puts much effort into outreach to family members whenever a need or opportunity arises.

Those are good examples of traditional community-wide communications, but we wanted to establish a channel for individual outreach.

“I actually thought we were communicating as well as we could with family members and residents, but Smile has taken it to a whole other level, where staff, families and residents can much more spontaneously interact,” Mierau says. “Staff have cameras and smartphones with them more often, so now when something good happens, they can easily and spontaneously capture and share it. It builds on our positive culture.”

Building community

The web platform provides Waterford Crossing with cloud-based technology through which we can send and receive text messages and emails from any computer or mobile device. Staff can share text, photos, video and audio files about special events using fully secure data encryption that is compliant with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act and excludes personal health information.

Frankly, I had never seen anything like it. It is something like a family Facebook page but is centered around one person or couple.

Smile facilitates the planning and scheduling of activities tailored to residents’ individualized needs and assists in creating groups of residents based on shared interests. Families can use the portal to enter information on residents’ life stories and prior interests to help caregivers learn more about them as individuals.

“Living as far away as I do, I'm very grateful for this new way of communicating,” says Yoder, whose father resides at Waterford Crossing. “I get to see pictures of Dad and [stepmother] Anna, and I get notes from staff members who interact with them. I like seeing what activities they are participating in and what other options are available to them. I also like telling stories about my dad through the personal profile; this gives the staff something to talk and laugh about with my dad. It has been a lot of fun.”

Other communications platforms have been developed for senior living communities, and some of Smile’s functionality is similar to the existing tools. We like the flexibility and utility Smile offers for all users—staff members, caregivers and family members—and its analytics and reporting functions, which allow us to track levels of engagement by resident and activity as well as how frequently we are in communication with which families.

Planning an effective launch

It’s nice to have a good app, but success comes with good implementation of that app.

Carol Srun, Waterford's community life coordinator, trained senior staff members and nurses to use the technology, then rolled it out at an all-staff meeting. “We wanted everyone to contribute, and [so we] created a form to fill out when they reported on something,” she says. “We created a saying: ‘If you smiled and the resident smiled, then you probably had a Smile moment.’ ”

It helps that the tool is easy to learn and use, Srun says. “It only takes 15 to 20 minutes to train new staff members, and they are sending messages to families the same day.”

Srun developed a flier for families about the web platform and what it can do in the future. “We pushed the flier out to every power of attorney and asked, if that person was not able to participate, to pass it along to another family member,” Srun said. “Just a few months into the process, half of our families are using Smile, and recently everyone who has moved in has had family become part of program.”

About Smile

The Smile Integrated Communication and Engagement Platform was developed by Carex Technologies, a company founded in 2011 by University of Notre Dame professor Sarv Devaraj, PhD, who teaches health technology and management. The web platform is in use at or in various stages of implementation in a few dozen assisted-living communities.

“We developed Smile to address the critical fact that 41 percent of the 1.7 million Americans in assisted living communities don’t get a weekly family visit,” Devaraj says. “The lack of interaction with loved ones is a contributing factor in loneliness, anxiety, isolation and depression among residents. We felt that if families receive messages about the good things happening in their parents’ lives, we could help build a greater sense of connectedness within families and with the places where the parents live.”

Carex conducted a research survey of 120 families who were in the process of choosing an assisted living community and found that 94 percent of respondents said that having some kind of engagement technology would be a factor in their decision-making. On average, respondents said they were willing to pay about $35 per month more to have access to that technology.

Marc Blosser, whose 81-year-old father, Emerson, is a Waterford resident, says the web platform has helped him develop closer relationships with staff members, whom he now feels he can call directly with questions. “I had a general rapport from the process of selecting the facility and moving Dad in, but I wouldn’t necessarily have continued to interact with people like the activities director or the nurses if it had not been for the Smile program.”

Enhancing memory care, marketing

The platform also has supported the community's memory care center, called Emily’s House, by ensuring that residents with memory issues are scheduled for and attend a balance of activities that support their overall well-being. Those include social, cognitive, spiritual and physical activities.

For the families of residents who have dementia, the platform has been a boon, as they get to see a parent doing things they may not have known he or she could do. “Mom is painting?” We get that response a lot. Many people think, “Dad doesn’t remember if I visit or not,” but if they see how engaged he is in events, it may become, “I want to be part of this.”

The platform also has enhanced our marketing efforts. It provides us with a way to record contacts, set reminders for phone calls and visits and identify a referral’s level of interest. “It is just the right tool to help us be more alert and diligent in capturing information and doing follow up,” Mierau says. “Overall, it has improved our customer satisfaction, so family members wind up doing our marketing for us.”

For Rose Stutzman, whose parents, James and Ruby, live at Waterford, the platform has allowed her to keep abreast of their progress, despite an erratic work schedule in retail. “I want to know how they are doing, at my convenience, without interfering with their independence. My real focus has been on activities. My parents lived out in the country and did everything as a couple. I know that at some point I am going to lose one of them, and I want the one who is left to have some interests of their own.”

Adds Blosser: “If we are fortunate enough to have parents who live long enough, most of us will be in a position to have to find the next place for them to live, a place where they are safe and are cared for, where all the pieces fit together as they should. There is kind of a role reversal that goes on: parents become children, and children become parents."

Technology enabling communication can help in that transition, Blosser adds, and can be a factor in families’ decisions about where loved ones should live. “I am a very busy person, with a career and young kids of my own, so this is one way for me to easily stay connected with my dad and help to reassure me that he is doing all right.”

Sharon Risser, BSN, is managing owner of Waterford Crossing Senior Village, which includes a privately held assisted living facility with 80 apartments, a memory care group home and 66 condominiums located in Goshen, Ind.

Click on the upper-left image to see a photo gallery of residents.

Topics: Articles , Executive Leadership , Facility management , Technology & IT