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The senior living industry has a voice. You can hear it on Bridge the Gap podcast!

Episode 69: Kari Olson

Front Porch Center Founder Kari Olson shares how the industry can be a senior living think tank on this week’s episode. 

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Lucas: Welcome to Bridge the Gap podcast with Josh and Lucas, the senior living podcast. We are recording still in this amazingly beautiful place and for the listeners out there you can hear the silent lapping of the waves in the background as the sun is just beaming in behind us. We encourage you to go and watch our YouTube channel or Facebook page, but before you do that, I want to welcome somebody very special as a guest on our show today. I want to welcome Kari Olson. She’s the Chief Innovation and Technology Officer at Front Porch. Welcome.

Kari: Thank you. I’m excited to be here and oh, what the setting is, my goodness.

Josh: That’s incredible.

Lucas: And you live out here on the west coast. You get to enjoy this.

Kari: Absolutely. It’s like this 365 days a year.

Josh: Well. Uh, so glad to have you on the show. I’ve been a fan of yours and been in the industry awhile and love, love, love hearing your talks at all the different conferences and you’re doing that here at the SL 100 tomorrow. I believe we’ve had an awesome time. Just catching up with you a little bit. Uh, right before we hit the record button. So can’t wait for our audience to hear this. Lucas.

Lucas: Josh, our challenge is going to be a, we felt like we should have hit record about an hour ago because we’ve had an amazing discussion revolving around a lot of different topics in our challenge is going to be reigning it in for our listeners and honing in on a couple of things by way of introduction and a starting point. Why don’t you tell our listeners your background and what you’re up to.

Kari: Absolutely. Um, I’ve been, uh, in senior living for over 20 years. I started as a technologist. I came in at a time, our organization was about to go through merger and there was only two technology people. Fast forward, 20 years later, I lead a team of about 20 people working on traditional business technology. About five years ago I, started working also in innovation because I was really drawn to the need to create transformation through culture and then we’ll have a third hat and that is, I’m the president of the Front Porch Center for innovation and wellbeing, which really does research on emerging technologies that you can put in the hands of older adults to help them thrive.

Lucas: This doesn’t sound complicated at all.

Josh: No, no. Where do we even begin with that?

Lucas: Change culture and focus group technologies from all over the world. Yeah. So how are you doing that?

Kari: It’s the best job in the world. Um, you know, I don’t do it by myself. We do it as an organization. We do it as an entire team and I think that’s the thing I’m most excited about. We launched three years ago and organizational initiative called “Humanly Possible.” Is it trademarked approach from that Front Porch developed for engaging the entire workforce in innovation. And we basically believe that you can teach innovation skills to everyone in the organization and then you can structure a culture that will actually allow innovation and transformation to happen. This is a structured approach. So we actually, and when you come in an organization, you receive information and training on innovation every year our entire workforce goes to a two hour workshop where innovation skills are taught. And the beautiful thing about it is it’s led by our frontline work staff, not an executives.

We have like 98% attendance in this. We have executives that go through six weeks of deep dive, a lunchtime learning innovation education. We have annual action learning projects that everyone participates on. We have an innovation accelerator and overall on approach to engaging everyone and making sure everyone knows that your ideas matter, bring who you are and help us transform to become the best organization we can be. 

Josh: That’s so frustrating. So this innovation center that’s led by the front line caregivers, team members, is this like a virtual front? A virtual innovation center? That’s inside of a community or communities or is this a freestanding physical plant? 

Kari: t’s a great question. So all team members participate in the innovative culture and we ask everyone to live, lead and teach eight actions that make us more innovative. But in addition, we have developed an innovation center and that is a small team of about five people that work across the organization, building small bet pilots to try out emerging technologies that can help older adults live well. So it’s virtual and it works across the organization.

Josh: So that’s fascinating. So I can only imagine. So when we go to these shows and you see all this emerging technology, it makes our head’s spin a little bit. So how, how did your team pick like what to try out? I mean, how do you find the technology and know what you need to be working on and, and test all that?

Kari: It’s my favorite question. Thank you for asking. It’s not about the technology. The technology is just a tool and if you start there, you can get lost in all the shiny objects and it’s very…kind of overwhelming. We start with a need. So we start with our older adults and our, and our team members and we say what’s the need that could potentially be, met or what is the problem that could be solved? From there, the team goes out and sources technology and then identifies as folks that can come in and are willing to do pilots with us and, build them to really test what we want to test, not what they want to sell. It’s a very tough thing. Right? And when you want to sell and get someone else saying, no, no, no, no, no, no. We want to look at it this way. Um, fortunately we’ve been doing this for, since 2009, the centers existed and, we’ve built good reputation of being a great partner. And we’re at a great point where a lot of people come to us and say, who’s great ideas? So the pipelines there, and as we find the needs, we have usually good access to people who can, we can test with.

Josh: That’s so cool. So talk to me a little bit about what acuity levels, like what type of communities are you testing for? I mean, there’s obviously a big spectrum out there, so where’s the application?

Kari: All of them. I am so proud of this. So, we actually started doing most of our work in affordable housing, which is a very resource-challenge environment. We are fortunate and 2010 to receive a grant from the California telehealth organization to develop a model health community using telehealth technology and a wait coordinated services and delivered care and health information at distance learning mobile applications, a variety of things. And so we put a kind of flag in the ground. Then we started doing this, um, innovative work in affordable housing and we continued to do that. But then over time we started moving into independent living, residential, skilled and memory care. And we have pilots across the entire spectrum. And then we also partner with organizations in the senior ecosystem broadly. So we work with senior centers and other partner organizations across the country on this work now.

Josh: So that’s fascinating. So I can only imagine that the innovation center concept, what you are finding there and what’s great for implementation. You seem so passionate about talking about this on a very public platform. So how do, how does this become a resource for people outside of just your organization? How do people kind of tap into this and learn about all this?

Kari: I love…thank you for asking. Um, we share what we learn. It’s our belief that the needs are far greater than we alone can meet and that we have to kind of create a tipping point in the senior living ecosystem. And so on our website, which is, we publish our case studies and a lot of our tools, videos and share our experiences. We speak publicly nationally to share a story. Like tomorrow I’ll be talking about our work with Amazon Alexa and we really believe that it’s the right thing to do.

Josh: What a valuable. So Lucas and I have talked about that so much because you know, again, as I said before, even when we were in the, in the space as a day job, but when we go to these conferences, there’s so many cool emerging technologies and things. You’re thinking what is applicable, what is going to be most useful? What are the staff going to love, what are the residents going to love? And that takes a lot of time, a lot of homework and things like that. So you guys actually are doing a lot of that legwork and sharing it with the industry. That is exactly the essence of why we started this podcast to share these kinds of stories.

Lucas: Yeah. And so these IOT devices that are out, you know, we have the Amazon Alexa and stuff like that. So for our listeners that are not here in, aren’t going to be able to sit down and listen to you tomorrow, talk us about Amazon Alexa, what are you doing with it? What’s the application in senior environments?

Kari: Oh, okay. In 2015, Alexa was started to being sold in the United States broadly and that’s the time that our innovation center team started playing with Alexa in our labs. And by 2016, we were convinced there was something there. And part of the reason we were convinced is our residents started telling us, you gotta do something with this. We really believe there’s something here. So we started doing focus groups with residents to co-create what a small bet experiment would be using Alexa and senior living. And we did this at a community not too far from beautiful place where today in Carlsbad, California. And, uh, we started very small with 15 Alexis in 20 homes and 15 echoes. So two different, about 30, 30 devices all together. And we collected data in two phases. First, we just taught everyone had to adopt Alexa and tried to learn about how they wanted to use Alexa, and in the second phase we introduced basic smart home IOT. So we introduced a smart thermostat and smart plugs and the Alexa remote. 

And it was very interesting. When we went at first to roll out this smart IOT component, um, most people in the study said, okay, we’ll do it because we volunteered for this study, but we’re not sure. I’m not really convinced this is going to have a big impact. And then by the end of the three months study, no one would give back their technology. Yeah. And, um, you know, so 100% of, uh, the population used Alexa every day and they’re smart IOT everyday. 100% felt it made their life better and easier. And one of the most remarkable findings we had was 71% felt more connected to family and friends and community than they did at the start of the pilot.

Josh: Wow.

Kari: So you have to dig into that and say, what’s going on? And, you know, I thought maybe Alexis was going to, you know, separate people. You know, there’s the fear that technology will, will isolate people. And the stories that came out were amazing. We taught them how to do Alexa calling and they were calling each other before they were going down to an event or activity to just connect.

Josh: So like Alexa, call  Ms. Jones. We’re headed down to Bingo like that. 

Kari: Exactly.

Josh: Oh my gosh. Okay. 

Kari: Yeah. More doing calls with their family members. They were, we put an Alexa’s in common areas and they were bringing friends over to the Alexa’s and sharing with each other the skills they had learned to use. Um, this was the main topic of conversation as people got together, residents started training each other. Um, they developed a pay it forward program where if they had a great experience with an Alexa device, they would buy an Alexa device for someone else and give it to that person to introduce them to it. And then say, if you like this, all we ask is that you pay it forward in the future. Just phenomenal outcomes both in data and also in stories. And based on this, we as an organization learned how to adopt a, a voice first technology like Alexa, without adding staff, which isn’t a big concern for senior living providers. How to do it in a way that really is effective. And what are some of the secret sauces about how to get people to engage in that?

Josh: That is so fascinating.

Lucas: I hope Jeff Bezos is listening right now.

Josh: What do you think has been the most, is there kind of a pattern of how the residents are using Alexa? Like the most, what’s the most popular? I mean, is it the turn the TV on or off, the radio on or off, to make a phone call. Like what is the call a caretaker? And I mean, is that even possible?

Lucas: Weather, schedule?

Kari: It’s exactly that. It’s the basics, right? So the most frequently used features where weather, uh, timers, reminders, music, the things you would expect. But here’s the most exciting thing we learned and this is what I’m hoping to share tomorrow in my talks so here it comes.

Josh: Spoiler alert.

Kari: If you can personalize the experience to that one thing that means the most to an individual. So it might be the San Diego Padres scores for me, or it might be, um, for one resident it was accessing Bible verses she had macular degeneration. She couldn’t read the Bible anymore. And getting access to the Bible verses spoken was compelling. Um, to another person. It was a woman who had been in a wheelchair for most of her life who had a very loving spouse as a caretaker and partner, but she couldn’t set the thermostat. She couldn’t turn off the light, she couldn’t turn on the music when she wanted to. And when you find that one thing that just is so meaningful to the individual, that’s the way in the door. It makes it easier for people to adopt Alexa. And then, um, they’re often running, you can build on that. So that personalization is the killer app.

Josh: So for the average community that doesn’t have maybe the resources that you guys have and go to your website and they learn about this and they’re like, oh, that sounds really exciting. Something our residents can use. You know, what are some of those barriers that you hope people will be able to overcome? Because you know, when you think about it, you think, well, you know, I’ve got to buy the technology. How are we going to implement it? Like what’s the first step to like implementing something like that even that can sound really or seem daunting.

Kari: Yeah. Uh, I would say keep it small. So, in all of our work today, we’ve scaled voice first technology across front porch and we’ve done it 20 people at a time every time. And I think that’s key because it keeps it manageable, doable, and it builds a population of people that can then support it and be excited about and be champions for it. That’s part one, part two. And like for boys, first you have to have a WiFi infrastructure, which is, you know, that’s a challenge for some senior living organizations. And, and I mean, that’s a must do for senior living across the board. And I think mostly by talked to you understand that. Then you need champions. Um, and that’s, um, we actually, when we go to pilot, we always look for a resident champion and at least one or two staff champions.

And these are people who are willing to really lead the project, be the front face of the project, talk to other people about how it’s going to go give input into where it’s working, where it’s not. I would say, you know, the champion that the resident champion that we had at Carlsbad is so legendary. He’s actually taking calls from other residents across the country about what he did and how he did it. He’ll be speaking, he’s spoken at Aging 2, he’ll be speaking in a couple of weeks at Aging into the Future conference about his experience in the role that residents can take in leadership and creating these experiments. Really powerful. Um, you know from there, don’t bite off more than you can chew, which is a small success is much better than doing a lot and not having it work. 

Josh: So those are great nuggets of information that I know everybody needs that. Great experience.

Lucas: Well and were you in the session here where they had a one of the representatives from Amazon talking about their processes? Cause I’m hearing a lot of the same things that you’re talking about mentioning like small bets. Maybe explain, unpack that for some of the listeners because I had the benefit of just sitting through that, but I had never really heard that term anology before. Um, so unpacking it might help.

Kari: Oh, absolutely. I was on, I was in the front table. I don’t know if you noticed I was there taking notes. He was amazing. 

Luas: Yeah. He was very good.

Kari: Um, small bets I believe is one of the most important ways that senior living can change. Small bets are admitting up front. You don’t know the answer. Right. And that you want permission to figure out the answer. And that’s the perfect way to start experimenting with things.

We’ve got to get the culture in our organizations to the point where it’s okay to say, ‘I don’t know’. We’re looking at tremendous changes in the future and we just don’t know. We have to figure it out. And small bets are small experiments on a small scale where you commit to a defined approach to how you want to test or pilot something. You measure what success looks like, you learn from it, and then you pivot and you try again or you move in your direction. I’m very, very, very, very important. I think, especially when it involves technology. Most senior living organizations are really challenged and adopting technology because it has such a big price tag attached to it and it keeps people stuck. They don’t move. This is a great way to get unstuck and safely test something, involve people in co-creating it with you and then learn from it.

Lucas: What would you say to the person or the people that are listening that may say, I just, I’m worried about failure. How do we get over that hump? 

Kari: We talk about it.

Lucas: Gotcha.

Kari: Yeah. Um, I’ve failed and I’ve had pilots failed. Um, it really important learning experiences. Um, and, and we need as an industry, as it organizations and as people to really talk about them and be able to learn from them and realize that’s the path to our success. Um, so I’ll give you an example. We ran a pilot of a technology that I used a tablet with older adults to kind of help them learn about the day. Um, and also to provide information about their wellbeing and this tablet had a problem responding to older adult touch.

Josh: Oh, because of the loss of the fingerprint, right?

Kari: Yeah. The sensitivity changes in fingertips as you age. Also, skin dries and the older adults had a very difficult time controlling the tablet and getting it to respond to that. And so even though it was a great solution, that actual tablet that people had to interface with just didn’t work. And the solution or the work around that was provided for that was to give everyone styluses. And that pretty much killed the pilot right there because people wanted to interact directly with the tablet and be able to touch it. And we tried and tried and tried to get people to use styluses. And one of the most important things we learned from that is we should have stopped when they said loud and clear, ‘we don’t want to use a stylus’. Um, and, and it was a great learning experience for us. Um, and, and now we vet that aspect of technology very carefully.

Josh: So you’ve mentioned a couple of technologies that are kind of going to be game changers already. You’re seeing them in your organization. Are there any really exciting emerging technologies to you that you think can have really long-term positive implications on our industry?

Kari: I do. Really excited about what we’re calling hearables.

Josh: So not to be confused with wearables.

Kari: Well, maybe to be linked.

Josh: Okay. All right.

Kari: So there’s an emerging category of hearing solutions that are not hearing aids.

Josh: Interesting.

Kari: They are group listening devices and they are also P-saps, personal sound amplification products that boost hearing through an ear bud type solution. But they’re not, you know, full hearing aids. And, um, when we started digging into the research, we actually heard first from my residents that that hearing was the big issue. Situational hearing was very, very important to hearing on an outing, hearing in a hall or a room that had bad acoustics.

Josh: So where there’s a lot of different people?

Kari: Impeding noises like in a dining room. But other experiences, like reaching someone with dementia who has hearing loss. Um, so we were presented with a variety of situations where hearing was a real challenge to basic activities of life to engagement, creating isolation, did the research and went on to find out that, um, you know, people with hearing loss or three times greater risk for fall, six times greater risk for dementia. Most people 30% of the people that have hearing aids don’t use them. Um, they’re very expensive.

So we started, we were very fortunate to receive a grant from the Consumer Electronics Foundation, to do work and hearables. And for the last year, we’ve been testing these products with over 800 older adults inside and outside of Front Porch. Our report will be released in about a quarter. And, um, we’re basically going to be sharing what we’ve learned about who are the right people to be benefiting from these solutions. Uh, what are the right ways to adopt it and what are the opportunities to help people?

But we can tell you already, we have, life enrichment people taking mobile group listening systems that don’t require any type of tethering on outings and having phenomenal results. We have chaplains using these in personal conversations to really connect with people. We’re using them in, you know, a memory care to help engage someone and help build an appetite. There’s so many powerful use cases. At the end of the day, it’s about getting people connected. Nothing more powerful, I think in our work. So that’s an exciting solution that I think has an immediate impact and we’re really excited to share what we’ve been learning there. One of the more techy ones that I’m super excited about is virtual reality. I think it has tremendous power and an application to senior living. I think it scares us all a little bit, but we’re working in virtual reality in many situations, whether it’s engagement in life enrichment.

Uh, we had a family take a 3D camera to a family event in Hawaii where the loved one who lived with us couldn’t travel anymore. They put the camera on the table and they had everyone talk to the camera like the loved one was at the event and they brought that back to the loved one. And I have a video I could show you. It’s on our website of the reaction that both the older adults and the family members had as they shared this moment to reach someone who, um, actually has some cognitive decline and it created a connection, a moment of connection that wasn’t otherwise there, that then became a pathway for other exchanges of love and expression of connection, which are so, so powerful.

So, um, virtual reality in that way to engage people, virtual realities and opportunity to help educate caregivers about the experiences of older adults. Caregivers and other, I mean that could go far and wide to um, you know, fundraising to public policy and advocacy and helping people better understand the older adult experience and vibrancy and tons of exciting applications in virtual reality.

Josh: That is super exciting and I learned something today. I’d never even heard the term hearables. I feel like I’m so much cooler now and I was like so in the dark. So thank you for sharing that. I mean that’s great, great insight and I can totally see the application and I can’t wait to learn more about those studies. I know I’m definitely going to be following you guys and engaging on your website because that seems just like a wealth of information. I know our audience, Lucas, is going to love to make that connection.

Lucas: They are and we’re going to make sure that we connect all that. And, uh, the video in particular, I can’t wait. Uh, once, once we stopped recording, I want to see that video. So we’ll make sure our producer Sara gets that from you. And, uh, we, we put that into the show notes and I think that there is definitely another episode in our future to sit back down on a more consistent basis to talk about all the results from all this stuff that you’re doing.

You mentioned, Josh and I were saying we’d been to the Thrive Center and that’s been really fun and you’re connected with them as well. These are the types of things in our industry that is that high tech, high touch that Bob Kramer was talking about and many others are talking about. This such an opportunity to essentially bring disruption but disruption that benefits the lives and dignity of our aging adults?

Lucas: Well, I love what you guys are doing too. It’s, to disseminate that information of the work that you’re putting in. Um, what’s your organization is investing in that not only helps your organization, but you’re willing to share it. And that’s really what our industry is all about. That’s why we, one of the reasons why Lucas and I just love it. The collaboration is key.

Lucas: It seems to be at the core of what you’re doing.

Kari: Oh, absolutely. It’s one of our core tenants of what we do, but not only do we collaborate with the older adults and the staff, but our community partners and our entrepreneurial partners, our vendors are what makes this possible. And we’ve, how we’ve benefited from the thinking outside of our organization and bringing in what’s possible in the world. Things we would never have thought of: it’s changed us for the better.

Josh: That’s great. We’ve got to check out the innovation center. I feel like I’ve got to go. We’ve got to get to the innovation center.

Lucas: Listeners, you want us to go? Do you want us to get back there? We’ll be committed to it. At some point we will make that happen. And for our listeners that want to engage, let us know, give us your feedback. We’ll connect to all that, all the happenings and all the things that are going on here in the show notes. And uh, we just really appreciate your time.

Kari: Oh, thank you. It’s been a pleasure and thank you for the work you’re doing, the way, the way you’re educating everyone about what’s going on in senior living is so important. Thank you.

Josh: Thank you, it’s our honor.

Lucas: Thanks for coming and sharing your time with us. Enjoy this beautiful day and thank you for listening to another great episode of Bridge the Gap.

Thank you to our supporting partners NHI, RCare, NRC Health, TSOLife, ERDMAN and Sherpa.

Episode 69: Kari Olson