Characteristics of Effective Tech-Based Social Engagement Programs for Existing & Expanding Life Plan Communities

By Gwen Hardy and Cameron Honeycutt at Presbyterian Homes of Georgia

In addition to all the science on the subject, we’re seeing firsthand the benefits of high-quality social engagement and interaction programs on our campuses. Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, we know it’s no fluke: Offering ways for senior living residents to genuinely connect might be the very best way to keep them healthy and happy. Plus, we can’t overstate the role technology has played during the pandemic. It has given our residents and prospects ways to stay socially connected when physically apart.

For Life Plan Communities to remain relevant, it’s evident that we must respond to changing consumer preferences for the daily living experience. So, if your community hasn’t yet built out its social connection program, as John Franklin of Pearl Creek Advisors noted in his recent article, “What have you been doing?”

Keep reading to learn what has worked particularly well for us when combining social interaction and technology, and be sure to watch Love & Company’s recent webinar on social engagement to take a closer look.

A strong platform is key

At a number of our existing Life Plan Communities, we’ve used technology to augment—not replace—the social engagement programs we provide. Critical to this effort has been our partnership with Wellzesta, a provider of communication and wellness software specifically for senior living providers. The Wellzesta platform has enabled our residents to connect with each other when in-person interactions are not possible, or when a resident simply prefers to seek content and connections virtually.

“A lot of why people say living at a Life Plan Community is better than staying at home is the social interaction,” Kyle Robinson, partner at Wellzesta and panelist on the webinar, said. “Technology is becoming a bigger part of that, for how people can interact online and access wellness-focused programming that engages them.

“Plus, having the technology in place gives the community staff data that they wouldn’t have otherwise such as which virtual tools are most (or least) popular, which programs are generating the most engagements, individual residents’ preferences for types of content, what content people are sharing most, and more,” Kyle added.

For us, it has been about adapting to seniors’ preferences for social interaction because before long, social connection will be the main value proposition for Life Plan Communities. We’re glad we have the tech that helps us continually learn the preferences of our residents and prospects so that we can hone our programs to fit them. Here’s what any organization needs in place for its own program, as well as what’s working for us.

Foundations of any tech-based social engagement program

If your Life Plan Community is working toward implementing (or improving) its tech-based social connection tools, these elements are crucial:

  • Bandwidth. This is two-fold. First, Kyle notes that strong, fast, reliable campus-wide Wi-Fi is key to supporting video chats, video content and stable access to the virtual resources your community makes available. Second, the community should have the staff bandwidth to help manage the platform, help residents use it and curate virtual resources. And as one would think, that doesn’t mean giving more tasks and responsibilities to already overworked staff members—it means hiring for the specific role.
  • A trusted partner. We advise against giving all the virtual platform responsibility to existing staff just as we advise against setting up the platform yourself. If at all possible, hire a company to do it for you. Kyle recommended to seek “an organization that really understands what success looks like, one that is used to working with the senior population, and one that can get the platform operating on all cylinders in a short time.” Make sure the organization or software provider can support your needs during and after initial setup and onboarding.
  • Openness to data. Incorporating virtual social connection resources will produce a lot of data, so use it! You will be able to see how residents are engaging with virtual resources, which types of content they prefer and more. Plus, having a robust platform can give your marketing team data it would not easily have available otherwise, such as average resident age.

Kyle noted that while it’s always easier to keep doing and thinking as you have done, changing the approach to technology and data will help Life Plan Communities “fend off the wolf at the door” while redefining the continuum.

What’s working at PHG’s existing communities

In conjunction with the Wellzesta platform, we have found a few significant factors that have contributed to the success we’re having with our social connection programs at our existing communities. Here are 3 keys.

  • Repurposing existing content. Your team does not need to produce and publish entirely new content and resources to supplement your virtual and online social engagement resources. We have found success sharing links to wellness-focused YouTube channels and sharing links to existing resources on the topics on which we focus.Kyle adds, “With content, variety is really key. We can use the platform to survey residents on what kinds of content they like the most and use that data when selecting content targeting certain themes or certain facets of wellness. It’s also important to track which content format residents prefer, whether it’s written, video, audio, interactive, etc.”
  • Supporting the system. Many of our residents would not be engaging virtually if we did not have devices for them to use such as tablets or laptops. So in addition to providing devices (even shared devices), having an on-site technology expert to help residents get up to speed has really helped. Kyle also mentioned that this can even create an intergenerational opportunity if the community opts to partner with a local middle or high school to help residents learn the technology.
  • Giving them what they want, when they want it. On-demand content is in demand on Life Plan Community campuses just as it is elsewhere. Some of our most liked and favorite pieces of content shared virtually are the ones that speak to the holistic approach to wellness (mind, body, spirit, vocational, purpose, etc.). Many of the people in the group with whom I [Gwen] spoke said that they enjoyed having plenty of choices and methods to learn, engage and interact.

What’s working at PHG’s new community

Our new community, Presbyterian Village Athens, has taken a similar-but-distinct approach to using Wellzesta and its resources to help members of the community interact before it opened, and especially now that members are living on-site. There were some advantages to introducing the social connection program to everyone at once and shaping it as the resident population grew. Here are 3 particular factors contributing to its success.

  • Building a community without walls. For a blue-sky (or “green-field”) community, getting people to interact without having any brick and mortar can be a challenge. However, technology helped us bring people together so that we could enable interactions among future neighbors. We basically built a directory of founding depositors that included biographies and interests for every individual and couple who would be moving to Presbyterian Village Athens. One individual claimed to have read every single bio! Coordinating and discussing pre-opening events using the Wellzesta platform was also a good way to foster organic interaction.
  • Establishing resident advocacy. It’s important to use the Wellzesta platform actively and proactively so that we can use the data as part of monitoring residents’ overall wellbeing. For example, if we notice that a resident hasn’t been attending programs or using the platform, we can coordinate with a resident advocate to get the resident the service(s) or social engagement that he or she may need. Having resident advocates assist the resident with the platform so that he or she can get the most out of it and attain the highest possible quality of life is part of the shifting value proposition of Life Plan Communities in general.
  • Reaching full potential. John Franklin, fellow panelist on the webinar, has also noted that while technology and platforms like Wellzesta can bring benefits, they’re only as good as how they’re being used. For us, that means we work to get every ounce out of the opportunities that the technology gives us, because we’ve already seen its impact on driving great outcomes. John adds, “Make sure you’re getting the benefit of using these tools to the full capacity. I’ve seen some organizations use tech but not understand its power or capabilities, and that prevents them from attaining those outcomes and using them as differentiators among their competitors.”

The senior living sector is changing so fast that providers must exhibit resilience and adapt to changes in how today’s and tomorrow’s seniors want to live. COVID-19 has not only accelerated many of these changes but has also brought with it new ways for Life Plan Communities to differentiate themselves from other retirement options. It’s up to us to lead the way.

To continue leading from the front, we hope you’ll check out the webinar, “Social Connection and Engagement: Part II of Repositioning Life Plan Communities to Provide What Consumers Really Want.” To watch the session recording, click here.

For more articles covering senior housing trends and how providers must adapt to them to continue fulfilling their missions, click here. To download Love & Company’s brand-new white paper, “Senior Housing Trends: 2021,” click here.

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