It was happy hour at the Brookdale Edina senior living community in Minneapolis, and as residents sipped colorful cocktails and nibbled canapés, chatting and laughing, a couple of the people who were busy mingling stood out from the crowd. Not only were they among the few without gray hair; they were younger than everyone else by at least four or five decades.
Al Baker, 25, and Ahmed Daoud, 32, were temporary residents. They lived at Brookdale Edina for five days last week, sleeping in guest rooms; participating in art and exercise and memory classes; sharing meals; socializing at happy hours and latte gatherings and listening to the actual residents tell stories about their lives.
Baker and Daoud are CEO and chief technology officer, respectively, of Minneapolis-based Reemo, a company developing software for a smart watch for seniors. Their immersion in the Brookdale community was a chance to demonstrate their product (still being fine-tuned) to members of its eventual target market, so they could see which features were popular and which might need some tweaking.
They discovered that residents place the cost of a product at a high priority, and that the term “technology” tends to put them off.
The Millennials said they’d had a great time interacting with the residents and that the staff and residents had been very welcoming and approachable.
“I’ve always liked sitting at the big kids’ table,” Baker said.
Baker and Daoud were participants in Brookdale’s Entrepreneur in Residence program. The nation’s largest provider of senior housing with 1,123 communities in 47 states, Brookdale began the program in October 2015 to help companies “design their products and services with seniors, not for seniors,” said Andrew Smith, Brookdale’s director of strategy and innovation. The company sees it as an opportunity to enrich the lives of its residents.
Reemo is the fifth company to use the program to test new technology. The response has been enthusiastic; contrary to stereotype, seniors are not technophobes, Smith said. Though not necessarily wowed by whiz-bang apps, they’re interested in products they can see enhancing their lives.
“All they need is a little education,” Smith said, “and a reason to use it.”
Reemo’s watch performs functions that benefit both older people and their caregivers. Perhaps its most razzle-dazzle function is letting the watch’s wearer, with a light karate-chop motion, turn lights and TV sets on and off, lock and unlock doors, set the thermostat or open and close a garage door.
A simple finger swipe switches the watch from one function to another.
“A lot of them say, ‘Oh, that’s it?’” Daoud said.
The watch also helps manage the owner’s schedule — handy for users whose days are often full of activities. “I don’t do as much in a month as they do in a week or a day,” Daoud said. Another feature from the timepiece: it provides news and weather information.
Perhaps most importantly, the watch gives the wearer a way to keep in quick touch with distant family. After a loved one asks a question through an online portal, the watch vibrates and the wearer can click “yes” or “no.” Caregivers can also access data via an online portal, so families and staffers can tell when the wearer is up and about, track his or her activity level and heartbeat and potentially spot problems in time to prevent seeking a higher level of managed care.
“And the kicker is, it does tell time, too!” Baker said.
Pam Paul, 78, is one Brookdale resident with whom Baker and Daoud have grown particularly close — she approached them the first day they arrived and struck up a conversation; they wound up eating meals with Paul and her husband. Paul said she’d like to get the watch when it comes out (Baker and Daoud estimate its cost will include an installation fee and $50 a month for the service).
“I think I need one because my brain is going bonkers,” she said cheerfully. Paul has early-stage Alzheimer’s disease and can see the watch helping her keep track of things she would forget.
Though some residents exhibited initial skepticism, they were mostly won over once they saw what the watch can do.
“They’ve gone from, ‘I don’t think I need that,’ to ‘I really need that,’” Baker said. They see that “it’s not a computer — it’s a way I can talk to my kid.”
Baker and Daoud found they learned more from the experience than they’d expected to. For example, they discovered that residents place the cost of a product at a high priority, and that the term “technology” tends to put them off.
The Reemo execs plan to make some adjustments in light of what they learned last week about the Brookdale residents’ day-to-day needs and priorities — for example, wearers will be able to tap an “I’m OK” button when they get up in the morning and will have a way to keep track of their meals.
The experience “has exceeded our expectations significantly,” Daoud said. “This allowed us to get these anecdotal stories about what they really do and don’t care about.”