More than demographics driving senior living products

Technology, regulation opening new opportunities

A VibeTech product aimed at helping low-mobility adults improve muscle strength and function in their lower extremities.

It’s not hard to look at the approaching wave of retirements by baby boomers and see a potential business opportunity. With the population over the age of 65 projected to double over the next three decades, more people will be in the market for products and services aimed at senior citizens.

But assuming the demographic shift is driving the development of new business obscures other shifts in the market. Technological changes are leading to innovative products, regulatory changes are altering the imperatives for health care providers and trends in aging create new consumer patterns.

Surveys have shown aging adults prefer to remain at home as long as possible, and Oconomowoc-based Bruno Independent Living Aids manufactures products – including stairlifts and vertical platform lifts – designed to make a home or apartment more accessible. The company also has expanded into accessibility options for commercial buildings.

Pat Foy, director of sales and marketing at Bruno, said with people living healthier lifestyles, the age of those using Bruno products is steadily increasing.

The shift means the children helping their parents make decisions also have gotten older, now in their 40s or 50s, instead of their 30s. Foy said the result is a more sophisticated consumer spending longer on research, asking more thoughtful questions and paying more attention to value.

OnKöl's monitoring device.
OnKöl’s monitoring device.

Marc Cayle, founder of Milwaukee-based OnKöl, was one of those providing in-home senior care for more than 500 clients as the owner of three Comfort Keepers franchises before he saw a need to use technology to improve remote monitoring.

After delaying production to incorporate feedback from field trials, OnKöl was set to inspect its first 200 units at the end of October. Its device monitors everything from door sensors, to scales, to blood pressure cuffs, and can send data to family members via text message. The changes opened up the potential for new business with call centers, and the first two production runs are already sold out.

Beyond demographic changes, connected devices and regulatory changes under the Affordable Care Act that emphasize quality over quantity of care have created a “perfect storm” for the industry, Cayle said.

OnKöl’s technological choices include an open architecture that allows for easy updates and only transmitting, not storing, user data.

“We are not in this to play the data game,” he said, noting many companies seek to own the data and charge for access to it.

Cayle said many companies going after the senior market “truly do not understand what the need is.”

“Most of the devices that I see seem like they were developed by a kid in a cube with a grandparent that’s not even old enough to use these things yet,” he said.

For Cory Wanek, his own experiences with family members prompted him to start Hales Corners-based Senior Diamond Referrals, a service that generates senior living community recommendations from a database it has developed. Senior Diamond then accompanies families on facility tours to help them make a systematic decision about what will best fit their needs, instead of making an arbitrary decision.

Sorting through the available options has become increasingly complex in recent years as facilities have proliferated and become more specialized.

Just in metro Milwaukee, the number of continuing care and assisted living facilities is up more than 80 percent since 2005, to 279, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Wanek said the decision is a big one financially, and having someone who knows the right questions to ask on a tour is as important as using technology to narrow the options.

Josh Silldorff, founder and chief executive officer at Milwaukee-based BrightLife Innovations, has found plenty of ways for technology to help inside senior living communities. BrightLife’s EasyConnect HD was intended to help senior living residents communicate with family and friends, but now it’s used by management and staff for training, connecting multiple locations, and providing access to experts around the country, among other things.

Silldorff is looking to the future, making EasyConnect HIPAA-compliant so it can be used in what he sees as a coming wave of telehealth for senior citizens.

“We are going to provide the ability and the connection so that people can access the care,” he said.

A VibeTech product aimed at helping low-mobility adults improve muscle strength and function in their lower extremities.
A VibeTech product aimed at helping low-mobility adults improve muscle strength and function in their lower extremities.

BrightLife is now in nine states. Senior living communities tend to test new solutions in pilots and aren’t afraid to make companies jump through some hoops to demonstrate their capabilities, Silldorff said. In one case, a company asked BrightLife to complete installations in five communities in five different states over two days to prove it could handle the work.

Silldorff also has discovered his best sales tool is developing a reputation for having a quality product and service.

Jeff Leismer, president and CEO of Sheboygan-based VibeTech Inc., agreed that building a reputation is important. He’s doing that through research studies as he develops a product aimed at helping low-mobility adults improve muscle strength and function in their lower extremities.

Leismer’s product uses mechanical vibration to stimulate leg muscles in a way that simulates the impact of walking. While he originally developed the technology to help astronauts in space for long durations, a 2010 National Institute on Aging grant helped him develop the products for older adults. He now has a commercial product and counts the Jewish Home and Care Center in Milwaukee among his customers.

Leismer also said the increasing availability of technology leaves room for companies to collaborate to improve lives.

“There’s so much more room for collaboration,” he said.

Sign up for BizTimes Daily Alerts

Stay up-to-date on the people, companies and issues that impact business in Milwaukee and Southeast Wisconsin

Arthur covers banking and finance and the economy at BizTimes while also leading special projects as an associate editor. He also spent five years covering manufacturing at BizTimes. He previously was managing editor at The Waukesha Freeman. He is a graduate of Carroll University and did graduate coursework at Marquette. A native of southeastern Wisconsin, he is also a nationally certified gymnastics judge and enjoys golf on the weekends.

No posts to display