If you’re a tech geek, you may have already met Alexa. She is the voice of the Amazon Echo, a sleek metal cylinder about the size of a paper towel roll that sits quietly in the corner of a room, waiting to be helpful. The device comes to life when you ask Alexa to turn up the lights, turn down the news, answer your trivia – or any number of other useful tasks. The Amazon Echo was a top seller during the 2015 holiday season, and appeared alongside famed actor, Alec Baldwin, and football star, Dan Marino, in a Super Bowl commercial. Soon, it might be a fixture in resident apartments at the Masonic Homes of California, too – and perhaps other Masonic communities after that.
Straight from Silicon Valley
The Amazon Echo is one of the technology tools demonstrated to guests of the 2016 Masonic Communities & Services Association (MCSA) Conference this past week. Every year, the conference gathers administrators from 33 Masonic care organizations throughout North America to discuss community initiatives and challenges, from as diverse locations as Kentucky and Denver. This year, the Masonic Homes of California hosted in Berkeley, and the timing was appropriate: June is Masonic Homes Month in California. This year’s conference theme, innovation and technology, is appropriate too. With Silicon Valley right across the San Francisco Bay, attendees didn’t have to look far.
As the conference host, the Masonic Homes welcomed attendees for a tour of the Union City campus, introducing demonstrations of new tech tools that seek to improve senior care. Two model “Smart Home” apartments were unveiled – living spaces retrofitted with cutting edge technology, designed to be inexpensively integrated into existing architecture. These trial Smart Homes provide a glimpse of how new technology tools may be able to work together to improve resident safety and quality of life: A sensor triggers soft floor lights when someone gets out of bed in the middle of the night. A sensor switches the living room lights off upon leaving, and back on upon return. Music turns up and down by voice command.
Many of these technologies have existed separately, but are only now being combined in exciting new ways. Some of the tools that the Homes demonstrated in these sample apartments are already widespread in the consumer market, but are just now being considered as solutions in senior care. The Amazon Echo is one example. Wearable devices, similar to fitness trackers like the Fitbit, which is worn around the wrist or clipped to an article of clothing, are another. By tracking health-related data like heartbeat, respiratory rate, sleep stages, and movement patterns, in the future, these tools might be able to inform Homes staff of a resident’s overall health, alert them to risk factors, and help guide care plans. And, by embracing the possibilities now, the Homes has an exciting chance to set some industry precedents.
“We have a special opportunity here in part due to our proximity to Silicon Valley,” says Michael Skaff, chief operating officer for the Masons of California. “There’s interest from a number of companies to leverage these model Smart Home apartments to showcase some of their newest technology, and prove its efficacy. It’s a great opportunity for public-private partnerships. It’s a chance to be truly on the cutting edge.” As a result, the model Smart Home apartments will remain intact long after the MCSA Conference – bringing global businesses onto the Masonic Homes campus to preview its unique services and innovative vision for senior care.
The care curve
Of course, innovation isn’t only a matter of technology. During the MCSA Conference, attendees were also introduced to a one-of-a-kind memory care program, the Masonic Homes’ new Compass Club. The program was developed for residents in the early stages of memory loss who can still safely live independently, but who benefit from specialized support. Its creator, Joseph Pritchard, the Homes’ director of memory care, describes the format as a “mobile day program”: residents continue living independently, but their days are framed by group activities throughout campus with staffers called “navigators” who assist and guide them.
In developing the Compass Club, Pritchard had no precedent to consult; this kind of program didn’t exist elsewhere, at least not to the Homes’ standards. He combined best practices from traditional memory care programs – which are typically geared toward assisted living residents in a confined environment – and adapted them for Union City residents. The Compass Club taps into the social, physical, cognitive, emotional, spiritual, and nutritional domains of memory support. Activities range from music appreciation and art classes to ice cream socials and exercise. Because isolation is both a cause and consequence of memory loss, the program especially focuses on opportunities for social engagement. If a resident chooses to take a meal alone in her own apartment, a navigator will make a point to stop by later that day to chat for awhile.
The Compass Club was introduced this past winter to 20 residents, and already the Union City staff can see a difference. Before one resident started the program, she left her apartment only for dinner. She was losing weight and feeling depressed. Now she goes to the gym almost daily. She attends every music appreciation gathering. She paints. Although her memory occasionally fails, she is alert and attuned to the world around her. Another resident no longer insists that he should be moved to skilled nursing. When his navigator arrives in the morning, he asks, “What are we doing today?” When he hears a song he likes, staff even catch him swaying along.
“By investing a little bit of money and staff, the program has changed residents’ lives,” Pritchard says.
“For more than 100 years, the Masonic Homes of California has been intentional about evolving and updating our practices, trying to set an example to others in the care industry,” says Gary Charland, the Homes’ executive vice president. “We always look ahead to how we can improve, so we can better serve our Masonic family.”
“We’re ahead of the curve,” says Pritchard. “I would love for everyone else to catch up. This is where we all should be.”
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