Why Tech Concierge is Changing into a Should-Have Place in Senior Residing Communities

It’s no secret that the Covid-19 pandemic has pushed older adults to use technology more than any time in the recent past, and senior living providers have taken note.

One trend that has gained steam during the pandemic: new technology-focused concierge roles meant to help residents use the growing number of devices and platforms found in their communities.

Typically these are workers who have knowledge of the community or organization’s technology devices and platforms, and who can answer questions, train other workers and assist residents directly.

Before the pandemic, senior living residents were slightly more reticent about using new technology, and therefore working with tech concierges. But in the last two years, residents have come to learn they “can’t live without” these employees as they embrace technology to stay connected. Few know that lesson better than Ricky Garrett, who works as a tech concierge at Watermark Retirement Communities. In fact, he was the company’s very first employee to take up the role.

“They’ve relied so heavily on [having] a technology concierge — especially during the pandemic — that they are now coming to me daily,” Garrett said during a recent webinar moderated by Senior Housing News reporter Chuck Sudo and Jessica Longly, business development strategist at CDW Healthcare. “They love that they have somebody here that they can lean on.”

Watermark, which is headquartered in Tucson, Arizona, is not the only senior living provider that created new tech concierge positions in response to the pandemic. Neptune, New Jersey-based United Methodist Communities is another senior living provider that has created such a role. Atria Senior Living features a tech concierge at its “community of the future” in Newport Beach, California.

“I would encourage everyone to jump in so that you can begin experimenting with this role and seeing how to position it for the future,” Tammy Farris, director of strategic innovation at Watermark, said during the webinar. “Because I think it is going to change from what we even know of it today.”

Rise of the tech concierge

The senior living industry has seen firsthand how older adults have embraced technology during the pandemic — and new research from AARP shows the extent to which it occurred.

Just under half (44%) of adults age 50 and older reported having a more positive feeling about using technology to connect than they did before the Covid-19 pandemic, while 82% said they now rely on technology to stay connected with family and friends, according to an AARP study released in April.

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Adults over 50 also reported using these forms of communication more now than before the pandemic: video chats (45%), texting (37%), emailing (26%), and phone (29%).

For many years before the pandemic, United Methodist Communities had a technician that would travel among the organization’s four continuing care retirement communities (CCRCs) in New Jersey. That led the organization’s leaders to have a discussion about how residents view and use technology as they go about their daily routines.

What they learned was that, while many residents saw themselves as tech-averse, technology was playing a growing role in their lives, according to Travis Gleinig, director of IT at United Methodist Communities.

“These people who thought they had no interface with technology realize they’re kind of using it every day, and [see] the quality that it’s bringing to their life,” Gleinig said during the webinar. “So we knew we had to meet that need, because it was certainly undermet.”

Watermark took a similar path in creating its tech concierge position. About three years ago, the company began hosting classes for residents to learn how to use email, share photos and initiate video calls. Like United Methodist Communities, Watermark found residents often had a better grasp on technology than they thought.

Like at United Methodist Communities, Watermark noticed that residents were increasingly seeking help using their devices. In fact, the company found in one community that leadership was, in the span of one week, spending about 60 hours helping residents with technology.

“We were surprised at the volume of requests, and so that’s when we started to talk about this concept of having a tech concierge,” Farris said.

Today, Watermark uses a model in which residents can ask for a tech concierge’s help for a small fee that is added to their statements at the end of the month. At the community where Garrett works, it’s $15 for every additional 15 minutes of tech assistance — a pricing model that nearly offsets his salary from Watermark.

For smaller communities where resident demand might not be able to support a full-time tech concierge, Watermark has looked to combine the tech concierge role with another position at the community, such as a life enrichment staffer, someone who works at the concierge desk or a maintenance worker.

“We’re definitely pulling out job descriptions and postings for multiple positions and emphasizing the ability to embrace technology,” Farris said. “You have to have patience … compassion, and you have to be a good teacher.”

United Methodist Communities uses a similar model, billing residents in 30-minute increments.

The technology concierge role is also useful to tout in sales and marketing. For example, it can be a selling point during tours with prospective residents or their families.

“If you include from the get-go that technology interaction — ‘You have this, and here’s how you use it, and I’ll come by your apartment when you move in and I’ll get you onboarded’ — that’s a totally different experience,” Gleinig said. “And that’s way more valuable than the community down the road that says, ‘Here, we have XYZ, and good luck.’”

Some providers have mulled whether to add technology service fees to their annual rates, and Watermark is included on that list. And United Methodist’s Gleinig believes that trend will only accelerate in the months and years ahead.

“I think it’s definitely going to end up in the direction where a community has a tech concierge as part of the cost of living here,” Gleinig said.

As providers seek to implement their own tech concierge programs, they should be cognizant of the fact that it’s easy to get lost in the “sexy shiny stuff.”

“[Make] sure that you have a really strong, robust, reliable and secure infrastructure to ensure that you’ll be able to support all of these devices that will be coming into your organization,” Farris said. “It’s going to show up, so how can you best be prepared for it?”

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