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165: Amber Bardon

Creating an IT strategy with residents in mind, Amber Bardon, CEO of Parasol Alliance, discusses pain points and solutions of IT conversations that are taking place in senior living communities.

Lucas: Welcome to Bridge the Gap Podcast, the senior living podcast with Josh and Lucas. A great relevant topic for senior living today, we’re going to be talking technology, IET, with a thought leader in this space. We want to welcome to the show, Amber Barden. She’s the CEO of Parasol Alliance. Welcome to the program. 


Amber: Thank you, happy to be here. 


Lucas: Well, you know, this is a very relevant topic in so many ways, you know we’re coming out of 2020, which was in many aspects, a complete disaster. But in the middle of disasters, people have this incredible opportunity to raise the bar to rise to the challenge and one of those areas in senior living that was a huge topic of last year and remains a huge topic is technology and kind of getting out of these antiquated systems that the senior living industry has been in and saying like, okay, look, we need to get fully up to speed on all of our technologies so that we can meet the need and the demand that our older adults have in not only connecting with their family members, but just running operations in general. And so Amber, you’ve been in this industry a long, long time and have seen these problems and created solutions. Before we get into that, how did you get into it and then how did you leverage those skills into the senior living sector?


Amber: Yeah, so I worked for a senior living community in Chicago called CJE Senior Life, which is the Jewish federations aid services branch. And at the time they had basically senior living gauging services and every type of level of care. So assisted, skilled, independent home care, home health and I started working there at the service desk, so an entry level position. And then over the course of the nine years I worked there, I got promoted several times. So I moved over to business systems support and learned a lot about EMR. I got my PMP certification and then I became the IT director and Senior IT Director. And throughout that process, I worked with pretty much every department in the company and did projects at all levels and really got a good understanding for the senior living industry from a business perspective and then how to merge that with technology.


Lucas: That’s fascinating, you know, Josh, I’ve heard you discuss so many different times where; you and I are sitting there talking. You’re like Lucas, I get inundated with all of these different market materials, these different solutions, technology, this, this, this gotta add this, you gotta do this, gotta do this. And it’s really confusing and oftentimes it’s a big budget item on a P&L. And so it’s a big decision for people to make. What have you, I mean, talk to us about your experiences in this way.


Amber: Yeah, so when I’d been at CJE for about nine years, I started thinking that there was a bigger opportunity to bring strategy to technology across the industry. So I had this idea to create a company to do that, and I wasn’t really sure how to actually get that started. So I started telling everybody I knew about my idea and through that process, I was introduced to Bill Lowe, who’s the CEO of Chicago Methodist Senior Services. And he came up with this idea to create a client when a model. So he said, why don’t we get some providers together who are going to need technology. Every senior living community needs technology. So why not own a piece of that and use it as a vertical integration strategy and also provide excellent technology services to ourselves. So through that process, we had many potential investors and I talked to all of them and they were pretty much single-site, a not-for-profit life plan community for the most part.

And when I asked them, what do you not have? So what is your solution for technology not meeting regardless of what that solution is? And the number one thing I heard was strategy. You know, they would say, well, my CFO was making decisions, or like he said, we just have a line item in the budget for IT, but we really don’t know what our priorities are, what we should be focusing on and we cannot afford a CIO. So from those conversations, we created a business model where we always start with strategy and a roadmap. And what that is is it’s composed of a couple of different parts. So it’s interviews with the staff at all different levels to understand from their point of view, what are the pain points with technology? It’s a full security network systems, hardware, software review. And then the output is a roadmap, which is very specific, which gives you exactly what you should be doing from a technology project perspective with estimated capital costs, estimated operational costs, and then more in depth analysis that there’s a decision such as changing an EMR. And what’s so powerful about that roadmap is it encompasses all levels of technology. So business systems, optimizations, possibly changing vendors for something like print services, low-voltage systems and then of course your IT systems. So that the provider is given an actual roadmap that you can execute on that’s very specific and has priorities organized.


Josh: Oh man. So, you know, I don’t want to digress here too much, but Lucas, you brought up and revealed to the audience some of my skeletons in my closet so to speak. Some of the painful conversations that I have had with you that are like frustrations, that are also opportunities. But to kind of paint a picture, I don’t know if our listeners right now, if you can, if what I’m about to tell you, if you can feel what I’m or if you’re there, but just being very transparent. I’m putting my operator hat on for a minute. Like my day job, through the last 15, 16 years of big companies, small companies, small communities, rural communities, urban communities, I have always been, I would say, an early adopter to technology in an industry that is probably behind other vertical places of adapting to technology quicker. Lucas, you said it this last year, we were kind of forced out of our comfort zones where maybe those that weren’t adapting to new technologies actually were kind of forced to do some things, which I think there’s some good that’s coming out of that for our industry. But if our listeners are like me, I am not a tech guy. Now I know I look savagely young for those of you that are watching on YouTube. And you think I’m a millennial and that I know everything about tech, I do not. And so when you go with the scratch and sniff approach, Lucas and Amber, like I have done, it’s kind of like everything in the candy shop looks really good. And these salespeople are really, really good. They’re telling you what all crisis they’re going to divert, how they’re going to mitigate your risk, improve your communication. Life engagement is going to be so much better with your residents and this tool that they’re going to give you is going to solve all these problems. And so the kid in the candy store, Josh, like literally I gobble it all up, right. With literally you said the keyword, Amber, no strategy, like there’s no strategy to it. And I think by osmosis, I’m going to go tell my team how wonderful this is. They’re going to adopt it. And it’s going to turn things around. So I don’t know what happened, but like over the last year and a half Lucas, to your point, being inundated with all of these companies and then me being wide open to the opportunity, like I’ve got to do this now I’ve got to do this. I realized like, oh my gosh, like it only took me 14 years to realize I need some strategy around all these cool bells and whistles and all this. So I actually said, you know what, I don’t even speak this language. I’m going to invest. I’m going to hire a CIO. And I’m going to delegate some opportunities to where this guy that knows the language that knows my vision can figure out a strategy to implement this. So I don’t know if that’s helpful to any of our listeners out there that you may be feeling the same way. But when I met Amber and talked to you a few weeks ago and heard about what you guys do, I felt like you guys are trying to provide a solution for people that are feeling just like I’ve been feeling it. Have I interpreted this right? 


Amber: Yeah so, the strategic roadmap is really created and intended to solve that specific issue. It, you know, started from what is the problem in the business? So what are the pain and the providers are feeling, and then how do we address that? And also at the same time, make sure that these technology needs are being met. And you mentioned residents too, so that’s a part of it. You know, the roadmap really focuses on the enterprise technology for the community. But resident needs and expectations for technology is a huge part of that and that ties into your enterprise strategy. So for example, we worked with many of our clients on new construction or new builds. And one of the key things we do is think about wall-to-wall wireless and what future technology may you want to have in your community, such as robotics. I was just speaking with the client yesterday, they’re looking at doing roombas to vacuum, to save costs on staffing. So, how are you building that into your strategy? And then ensuring that whatever you choose to do for your projects, if you get the candy, how are you going to be successful with that? Do you have the right infrastructure? Do you have the right buy-in? Do you have the right stakeholders?


Josh: So, you know, I’m a simple minded person. You’ve got to kind of break this down for me. So if I’m an operator, we got a lot of different listeners out there that are in rural communities, big communities, some of them have huge, massive regional and corporate teams and in others, they’re sitting there doing everything themselves in that community as the owner operator and just trying to keep the culture and everybody cared for appropriately. And then when you start talking about tech, they’re like no I’m checking out right now. I feel like, and you correct me if I’m wrong, regardless of where you are in that spectrum I just described, the process of developing a strategy can still be successful. Am I wrong?


Amber: No, you’re absolutely right. I mean, regardless of the size of your community, you’re going to have IT equipment, you’re going to have switches, you’re going to have computers, all of that’s on an aging life cycle. You don’t really realize it until it goes down and you don’t have it how critical it is. You know, you think about things like phone systems and nurse call systems, something, even as basic as that, if you really don’t know when does that need to be upgraded? When should that be replaced? You know, you’re putting yourself in possibly a bad situation for something to fail.


Josh: So let’s talk about, I think it’s very difficult sometimes, it is for me, and again I’m speaking kind of proudly from my heart here. When you are in the weeds every day as a provider, as a caregiver, as an executive director, as a regional whatever level you are, you’re running. I mean, you’re solving the crisis on a daily basis. It’s kind of difficult sometimes to almost feel like you’re pumping the brakes a little bit, to step back and take a bigger look and think strategy because it’s like, oh my gosh, I just got to meet this crisis today. Talk a little bit about your experience of working with community leaders on what that looks like from a process practically where like when you would go in and help develop a strategy, like who are some of the key people that are involved and how long on average would you say developing a strategy even takes?


Amber: So the key people, is really any department head across the organization. Those interviews are really, really important. There’s a lot of things that you uncover that may not even be on the radar of a community. So for example, we had one community that was a CCRC and they had five different EMR and there was no one who really thought that this was an issue. And when I did the interviews and I went to the CEO and I said, did you realize your staff is spending two hours, double entering data into all these different systems and nothing transfers, and you’re printing 200 pages a week so that you can share information, that those kinds of interviews and bringing that information up allows the community to see all of the priorities in one place and categorize them. So when you talk about fires, if you feel like your EMR is a mess, or maybe your HR systems are not being utilized properly and just doing a lot of the things on paper, but you’ve also got these major infrastructure things that need to be replaced. It lets you see it all together and then prioritize it so that it is happening and moving forward and executed on it so that there becomes less and less fires in the technology part and also it’s supporting your communities, strategic objectives as well.


Josh: So I think I heard you also say, when you’re talking about all the department heads are all the stakeholders, all the shareholders, whatever term we want to use that is touching whatever it is tech that you’re either have in place now, or maybe you’re contemplating. I think I heard you say even include the resident potentially or resident representatives. Can you talk a little bit more about what you mean by that?


Amber: Yeah, so one of the questions we ask in the interviews is what are your thoughts on the needs and expectations for technology with residents and since we’ve started doing these roadmaps over the last five years, we’ve done close to 40 of them. Everybody says, yes, and the population with a lot of the clients we work with is a little bit older. So it’s not necessarily seen as an immediate need right now, but definitely a future, not just a need, but an expectation that this will be provided, it will be available to the community. And that resident technology piece could come in a lot of different ways. So there’s resident engagement applications out there, you’ve probably heard of those that are like a portal for the community where it’s information, there’s, expectation to be able to stream Netflix all day with no wifi or bandwidth issues. There’s also just helping the residents with technology with their devices. How do they use an iPad? How do they set up their printer to connect to their laptop? Um, and how do they do all of that securely? Um, so one of the things we’ve done is create an additional resident technology plan. That’s different from the enterprise one, but they’re related. So, you know, some of the things you’re looking to do with the first step, maybe improve our Wi-Fi before we can even talk about streaming. So I think it’s all interrelated and it’s the resident side that is just becoming so much more important than expected.


Josh: Well, I think that’s a really cool aspect. So you’ve got your stakeholders that are working on that, I think you referred to it as the enterprise strategy. You potentially even have a correlating strategy with your resident, kind of the end user of the engagement platforms of various forms. I would imagine in my thoughts then take me to also believe the end users, the experience that your team is having that maybe they don’t have the decision on what tools they have access to or are using, but it seems just like the resident that engaging the team in that process of strategy, that’s going to be using that EMR or that point of care system or that online application system or onboarding or training, whatever it is that they’re touching. Have you seen that be effective? Like how have you seen that be effective in that strategy session?


Amber: Yeah, so creating the strategy is the first step, but then it’s not creating a strategy and just putting it on a shelf, It’s not going to help anybody. So it’s really the execution of that strategy is where you can start to see those specific results. And the way that we do it is through project management. So I’m actually a certified project manager and we have several others on our team and we include projects as part of our contract. So it’s not an additional consulting dollar amount, which we feel would put providers off of doing projects that they need to do. So that’s why we do it that way. And we meet with the clients every quarter and we select what projects off the roadmap we’re going to implement that quarter. And then we work through those that way, so that we’re not doing too many projects at once, and we’re not doing too many of the same kind of project at once. So for example, changing your EMR and your timekeeping system at the same time, that’s going to affect everybody. So you may not want to do those together. So I think that figuring out how you actually execute these and move those forward is really the key to making the roadmap successful.


Lucas: You know, Josh, I’m loving, you know, we’ve talked about this before, it’s the people in this business that really are so attractive that makes us industry so special. We’ve had this thesis for a long, long time, is that the industry needs people, partners outside the industry to come in and specialize and focus on the unique aspects and attributes that senior living has is, that the industry has. And Amber, I love how you’re tying all of these things together and connecting these dots because of your experience of working as an operator in this industry and then leveraging these skills in it that you have. As we round out the show, I want to ask you just kind of personally, what do you love about senior living? And do you have a specific story or example of how connecting these dots really impacted the wellbeing of older adults?


Amber: I love the senior living industry. I think if you talk to somebody outside of it, it’s not very sexy or cool sounding, but I’ve always said senior living tech is the wild west of technology. It’s a market. I feel like a lot of larger technology companies have ignored for a long time. And were recently, you know, especially with COVID, like I think Josh said earlier being just flooded with new companies, and you talk to these owners and you’re like, why did you create your company? They’re like, oh my grandma was in senior living and so I had a hard time navigating it and that’s why I created it, but they struggle because they haven’t been on that other side, the provider side to really understand what are the actual needs of business problems we’re solving and what operators deal with on a day-to-day basis. So for me, that’s what I really love is making that impact. Many of our clients we have, we do a strategic roadmap every three years, so we’ve done our second set of three-year roadmaps and we go back and we do look back and say, these are all the things we said we were going to do, and we’ve actually accomplished all of these things and I think that that’s really powerful. And we ask about the culture and how do people feel about technology and to see that that buy-in gets stronger and see the community stronger and start thinking of technology as a solution versus just another line in the budget. That’s what I really like, and all of our clients are amazing. I feel so fortunate to be able to work with all of the different clients we have and understand their business and their pain points and get to know them.


Josh: Oh man. So, you know, I think with every challenge there’s opportunities. We definitely have had some challenges, I think so many of the tech companies, at least just from the one that’s being shown these companies and these products, it seems like in the last year, the flooding of new cool, innovative problem solving technologies have emerged. And I see no end in sight, the senior living healthcare tech is here to stay. What a wonderful word for our listeners this morning to slow down, don’t do the Josh approach and scratch and sniff, and run into the candy store and buy everything without having a strategy in place. So Amber, thank you for what you and your team are doing and providing a couple little nuggets. As I like to say for our listeners, we will connect them much more with you because they’re going to want to know more. And I’m sure we’re just scratching at the surface at the questions that they all have. So Lucas, what do you think about this discussion? Been fun for you?


Lucas: Yeah, it’s been fun. I’m taking notes, I’m learning and we want to continue this discussion. Be looking for us not only on our social media, but on Clubhouse too. If you guys are interested in discussing this further, you’re going to want to check us out on our Clubhouse channel, Bridge the Gap. Then go to and you can access all of our content, all of our information. You can download the show notes and the transcript from this episode, we’ll make sure we put Amber in the show notes. Amber Barden of Parasol Alliance, thanks so much for spending time with us today on the Bridge the Gap Network. 


Amber: Thank you for having me.


Lucas: And thanks to all of our listeners. Have a great day and thanks for listening to another great episode of Bridge the Gap.

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165: Amber Bardon