Wi-Fi in Senior Living Becoming Necessary Investment

Senior living has been slow to catch on when it comes to installing commercial-grade wireless technology—by some estimates, less than 10% are up to speed.

Yet due to security concerns, a rising demand among residents, and an ongoing shift toward host of web-based services designed to make senior living and care more efficient, providers are finding in some cases they can’t afford not to make the investment.

Especially with new solutions that streamline the sharing of health records, centralize communication within communities and provide live patient data for those providing health care, those who choose not to “go wireless” as a foundation could begin to lose some competitive edge.

With new senior living construction, the installation is all but automatic, but still only 7% to 9% of communities have enterprise-grade wireless systems, according to solutions provider Emkat.

“In rural areas, some communities are not doing it unless they have to, or unless there’s state money or technology grants,” says Brad Kieley, president of Emkat, which offers mobile solutions in several areas including senior living. “In metropolitan communities they are doing it because they have to in order to compete with new homes and technology offerings.”

If the idea is simply to provide a wi-fi area in which residents can log on, some communities have been able to meet demand by purchasing and installing their own routers for wi-fi zones within communities, not unlike home installations.

Yet those solutions can become problematic for a number of reasons, security being one of them.

“They’re vulnerable to changes in technology, high costs for support, and security risks,” Kieley says. “Often times, their systems do not stand up to user requirements and create more frustrations than benefits.”

The nature of establishing an online network within a community today becomes twofold: caregivers and staff can access resident information to aid in their caregiving, and residents can access the Internet for their own interests and communications needs.

Privacy issues then can arise without networks that have security features toward the protection of electronic health records and patient information.

“People who try implementing consumer devices often set themselves up for failure and trouble,” Kieley says.

But in spite of all of the upsides of having an enterprise-scale online network, many senior living communities are still put off by the price tag, which can run from $40,000 to $50,000 for new construction and more for retrofitting in a typical 100-unit community, according to Emkat.

Leasing options are also available, that also include remote service from the provider.

Kansas-based Bluestem Communities, which operates two senior living properties within several miles of one another has gone through the process in one of its locations and is looking into bringing its second community online.

Having to retrofit the property has come with some challenges, says Bluestem President and CEO James Krehbiel.

“Often you need firewalls in key areas, and depending on how extensive, there may be hardware issues,” he says. Security is another major consideration from an operator perspective.

“We need to think about how to create hardware firewalls so visitors can utilize the network, but it’s also very secure,” Krehbiel says.

Staffing and maintenance of the network is yet another decision providers face, as the installation of new technology often comes with a learning curve and sometimes falls under the responsibility of an existing role in the community.

“Most of our customers utilize us for device management and support,” Kieley says.

One the systems are up and running, providers look to make the most of the investment, whether that means gaining a return on the monthly subscription or recovering the upfront costs of installation.

“We don’t have it all figured out yet,” Krehbiel says. “That’s our next key area. How do we best leverage the technology of these campuses? The big thing is wireless not just for the staff, but also for the residents.”

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