Longevity Network
  • Dec 07, 2016
  • Sally Abrahms

Young Entrepreneurs Move Into Senior Housing

Young Entrepreneurs Move Into Senior Housing

Living in three different senior housing communities in one year is hardly typical. But then, either is Sameer Dhar, a 23-year old entrepreneur and product designer for older adults.

He and his 20 and 30-something colleagues were creating a sensor called Sensassure that attaches to an incontinence brief (a.k.a. adult diaper). When it detects moisture, it sends a signal via a web-based device to tell staff when a resident needs to be changed.

“We wanted to solve this important problem but realized we knew nothing about the space,” says Dhar, “and the only way to really understand our users was to live with them. We have accomplished this in spades! We have seen first hand the challenges caregivers face in dealing effectively and compassionately with incontinence.”

To truly understand their customer, the young engineer, researchers and designers donned briefs to see what it felt like to wet them and learn about urine capacity. At Carlton Senior Living in San Leandro, CA, they shadowed staff changing residents’ briefs, slept on air mattresses in a make-shift board room, hung out with their laptops in the common areas, ate three meals a day with residents and listened to their feedback. That included gathering nitty-gritty input on saturation levels, voidance patterns and wetness against the skin. (Dhar and his colleagues also did a stint in a facility in Toronto and another in Maryland.)

“It was a wonderful experience for our residents,” says Nancy Randhawa, Carlton Senior Living’s regional vice president of operations. “They thought it was amazing that a group of young entrepreneurs would work so hard to develop a device to enhance the quality of their lives.”

Young Entrepreneurs in the Senior Space

Look around and you will see that the majority of those designing products and services for seniors are mere babes in their 20s and 30s. Since they can’t count on life experience, they are learning about older adults’ needs by embedding themselves in senior communities.

“I shed a few tears when I had to leave the residents,” says Dhar. “It became a real friendship versus them just being the subject of our study.” Dhar’s company got their product right; this year they were bought by a large company.

In March, 2015, Brookdale Senior Living, the largest senior housing provider in the U.S., launched its own weeklong Entrepreneur in Residence program. More than 50 companies applied; already, seven have moved into a Brookdale facility, each in a different state.

“It’s important that we help start-ups develop products and services with seniors, not just for them,” says Andrew Smith, Brookdale’s director of strategy and innovation. “This program is an inexpensive and fast way for us to learn about new technologies or potential new solutions.” If residents like something and think it will be useful, Brookdale can quickly adopt it.

Along with developing close relationships and getting impromptu feedback, there are more formal focus groups, one-on-one interviews and product demonstrations.

In October, Dayle Rodriquez, a 28-year-old British entrepreneur, spent a week at Brookdale South Bay in Torrance, CA. Besides being taught Seven Card Stud poker by residents (and winning!), Rodriquez introduced his key demographic to Sentab. It’s a small white box that sits on top of a TV and can be used via TV, smartphone or computer. Residents can make calls, share photos and video, engage in online learning or with others in the community, download apps and play games.

“I got feedback from a 360 angle, not just from residents. Caregivers on staff also made valuable suggestions,” says Rodriquez, Sentab’s community and marketing manager. Four of the residents with Wi-Fi installed Sentab in their apartments. Others weighed in on content they want and features. One insight: they want to be able to turn off the camera from their end when they make video calls to their children. “We hadn’t thought of that,” says Rodriquez.

According to Olga Rayo-Kirksey, executive director at Brookdale South Bay, “our residents feel valued that they’re asked for their feedback.” For the less seasoned, Rodriquez noticed that by being “roommates” he was able to gain their trust and melt their reticence to technology. Others with more gadget-savvy liked talking shop with him.

Last year, Mike Eidsaune, CEO and co-founder of Carely, lived at Brookdale Kettering in Dayton, OH. The free caregiving app for families to communicate with one another and coordinate care was finished but had not been tested on residents. One reason was because it’s designed for their adult children, not for them. Eidsaune, 31, had developed Carely based on his own experience with his grandmother.

“I had a big aha moment at the facility,” he says. “I got the day-to-day perspective of what walking in the seniors’ shoes felt like and what I believe is missing from the solutions out there today.”

At dinner one night, Eidsaune showed residents his Instagram feed with pictures of his kids. “There was this look of amazement,” he recalls. One of the women took a three-month old birthday card out of her walker that had photos of her grandkids inside. She carried it with her everywhere. “I saw how connected the photos made her feel to her family,” he recalls.

Because of this insight, Eidsaune has almost completely redesigned Carely so that families can send Mom photos, cards or flowers to stay connected.

“When entrepreneurs are integrated into the environment, they get to know their customers as individuals and see beyond stereotypes or any physical or cognitive limitations,” says Katy Fike, co-founder of Aging2.0, a San Francisco-based global network that connects, educates and supports innovators in the aging and senior field. “When the end user is real and the human connection is real, the solutions are simply better.”

Says Dhar about his experience: ““We are transforming the lives of many suffering from incontinence. Those 12 months changed us, living among and benefiting from the seniors’ wisdom. Now for me, intergenerational relationships are the key to a more fulfilling life.”

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