Technology is accelerating the transformation of the UK’s senior living sector. Antiquated notions of retirement villages as sleepy rural nursing homes are long behind us.

This article was first published by Estate Gazette on 27/01/2021

Demographic tailwinds, supported by Baby Boomers’ purchasing power and decades of underinvestment in purpose-built prime senior housing, have drawn institutional investment towards this highly scalable sector. Together, these drivers have aligned to create multi-generational smart retirement villages with new operating models.

Emerging digital infrastructure, such as 5G connectivity, artificial intelligence (AI) and the internet of things (IoT) applications, are rapidly transforming home environments. This futuristic picture is already a reality in Scotland’s first smart retirement village, developed by Commsworld and retailTRUST. In the Hugh Fraser Retirement Estate in Newton Mearns, East Renfrewshire, Amazon’s Alexa platform provides smart controls for everything from doorbells, to lighting, home temperature, and blinds, telephone calls, virtual assistance, refrigerators and operating the radio. Health and safety priorities are managed through telehealth systems, which use multi-party video conferencing between health professionals and patients, and telehealth apps use monitors, sensors and wearables to support independent living. These apps can collect residents’ vital health data at home (e.g., weight, pulse, blood pressure, blood glucose, lung capacity, etc.), as part of expansive home monitoring systems, replacing reactive care with a proactive and preventative model. 

Technology can also support physical and mental wellbeing, including by virtual reality (VR). For example, MyndVR has created a vast library of VR content for senior living communities designed to improve mental health and wellbeing. Research shows ‘virtual reminiscence therapy’ reduces anxiety and depression, with VR able to activate associations with photos, foods, smells and music. MyndVR says these non-pharmacological interventions can improve self-esteem and provide older people with a sense of fulfilment through reliving and talking about past life experiences. Further, physical wellbeing is supported through online personal training to improve fitness, nutritional content scanning systems to monitor and improve compliance with healthier diets. 

Many of these technologies offer overlapping benefits with other senior living pillars of design, demand and utilisation, including sustainability and community integration. Technology can optimise sustainable energy consumption, for example, by measuring temperature, light and movement and using the data to detect energy wastage and encourage the user to change their behaviour. Use of these technologies have the added benefit, too, of providing long-term cost savings for providers, for example through lower maintenance costs.

All these tech solutions have dramatically risen in adoption during the pandemic, where family visits are restricted. Incremental telehealth app adoption has catapulted to mass product maturity, with years of progress condensed into mere months. VitalTech, a Dallas-based specialist, claims more than 60% of people now prefer telehealth services over in-person clinic visits in the US. Coronavirus has also increased attention on air filtration and HVAC technology adoption, which regulates air and water quality.

The collection of these metrics, however, comes with data protection challenges. Deploying new technology that processes health data will need to be carefully assessed via privacy impact assessments to ensure compliance with data protection laws like the GDPR. These assessments often look to minimise the collection of data which can be odds with artificial intelligence that looks to hoover up data from as many collection points as possible. Another challenging area is the transparency of data uses. Affected residents and patients would need to understand how their data is being used in an accessible way.

The UK’s ageing population provides context for the sector’s investable scale. Higher life expectancy and lower birth rates will markedly change the UK’s demographics. In the next 20 years, the UK population will increase by almost 6 million – 99% of that net national population growth is among people 55 years and older, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) projections, providing a clear context for scaled Investment in the elderly living sector. 

Senior living and smart retirement villages will become an increasing part of the residential lifecycle in the decade to come. The Associated Retirement Community Operators (ARCO), which represents the UK retirement community sector, aims to increase the number of people living in retirement villages from 70,000 to 250,000 by 2030. Technology will support that objective and enable compliance with increased expectations, standards and regulations, further broadening the sector’s appeal and providing future opportunities for developers and operators.