Renewing and Reusing Residential: Senior living construction abounds with opportunities

Published On
Jun 15, 2022

The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in isolation, illness and even death for residents and staff at senior living communities, but it’s still a viable option.

For a while, the age-in-place paradigm suggesting older adults are better off remaining in their homes was gaining ground. Still, thanks to technological advancements and unrelenting demand, construction and renovation of senior living communities and apartments is on the rebound. That circumstance spells opportunity for electrical contractors.

“We do a ton of this kind of work,” said Jason T. Rubin, president of CR Electric Inc., Girard, Ohio.

Often with 8–10 senior living construction jobs going at any given time, CR Electric is completing the second of a three-stage expansion for Heritage Manor, a Youngstown, Ohio, retirement community that provides skilled nursing and rehabilitation services.

In doing this work, Rubin has encountered the trend of skilled nursing care accommodations transitioning from residents sharing rooms and bathrooms to configurations with private rooms and bathrooms.

For several years now, memory-care settings have featured added security controls on elevators, entrances and exits to prevent residents from wandering away.

Assisted living spaces feature outlets, light switches and doors placed for improved accessibility and interactive and automated capabilities for residents.

“In just about all settings, it’s become important that lighting automatically switches off, faucets are touchless and toilets flush automatically,” Rubin said.

He’s also seeing more interactive touchscreens for communicating with staff.

Unrelenting need fuels the resurgence in senior living construction and upgrades. The number of seniors age 75 or older in middle income brackets is expected to double from 7 million to 14 million by 2029, according to the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care.

Many forward-thinking private concerns obtained financing from investors during the pandemic and have already begun new construction projects, according to Senior Housing News. The publication also said bank lending for constructing senior housing began to pick up as early as the third quarter of 2021. That’s despite supply-chain issues that are expected to delay completion dates. Many not-for-profit senior living communities also have resumed expansion plans, due in part to newly available funds.

The proposed Older Americans Act in the Build Back Better package includes $1.2 billion in appropriations to cover, among other things, grants for infrastructure and technology improvements available to state and community programs serving older adults. Build Back Better Act appropriations also include $501 million for new Section 202 Supportive Housing for low-income seniors. The Build Back Better programs stalled in Congress, but portions may come back and get passed in individual bills.

“Here, we’ve seen more construction projects related to senior living in the last three or four years than we have in the last 20 years,” said Ed Emerick, training director for the Youngstown Area Electrical JATC in Youngstown, Ohio.

Emerick, who joined the electrical field 30 years ago, believes senior living communities, senior housing and short-term rehab centers offer distinct advantages as training grounds “for apprentices enrolled in commercial and residential apprentice training,” he said, adding that, “There are around 200 residential apprentices in the country affiliated with the IBEW-NECA training alliance. We have about 15 of them.”

The Youngstown Area’s three-year residential program includes classroom and on-the-job training.

The JATC’s remaining 50 inside apprentices are enrolled in a five-year commercial industrial program that also includes classroom and on-the-job training.

Senior living communities require everything from high-voltage connections and indoor wiring to digital communications. Besides apartments and individual rooms, many campuses include common buildings and spaces for dining, recreation and rehabilitation. They also require sophisticated lighting and security controls.

Even for those who remained at home, reliance on remote communications and telehealth soared in senior communities during the pandemic. Technology enabled older adults to stay connected with loved ones and receive medical care without exposure to high-risk settings or crowds.

“If COVID taught one lesson, it’s that robust digital connectivity is essential for senior living,” said Thomas Pedergnana, vice president of Malko Communication Services LLC of Skokie, Ill.

“With so many seniors secluded in their individual rooms and apartments, the pandemic spurred a movement to enhance interactive connections for seniors,” he said. “I saw a definite uptick in demand for community amenities connecting residents with their families and to activities within communities.”

Pedergnana is not alone in this opinion. LeadingAge, which represents more than 5,000 nonprofit aging-services providers and other mission-oriented organizations, operates the Center for Aging Services Technologies (CAST), which expedites the development, evaluation and adoption of emerging technologies to improve the aging experience.

Majd Alwan, CAST executive director, told the Wall Street Journal last February that these days, couples moving into senior living communities bring from five to seven electronic devices with them. The goal is to maintain social ties.

Tech concierges

While seniors have electronic devices, a Pew Research Center survey indicated that more than two-thirds of adults 75 and older need help setting up and learning to use them. This has prompted many senior living communities to employ “tech concierges” to serve residents and staff, according to Senior Housing News.

“More communities are using technology concierges to help residents and staff get the most out of interactive technologies,” Pedergnana said.

He has collaborated with such concierges to set up modern communications systems in senior living communities in Chicago’s northwest suburbs.

To better support cellular and mobile coverage as well as emergency response radio coverage, Malko Communications installed distributed antenna systems and enhanced Wi-Fi transmissions, which enabled residents to order meals and sign up for classes and staff to use point-of-care devices as they administer care.

Malko also installed projectors, cameras and digital displays to support a variety of features making their way into senior settings. For example, digital signage in common areas near elevators and hallways informs residents of community activities.

With enhanced audiovisual broadcasting capabilities, the senior communities also use cameras to livestream on-site events and worship services.

“For those who couldn’t leave their rooms or apartments, it made all the difference as far as being able to enjoy a local school choir performing in a common area,” Pedergnana said. “We’re also seeing a lot more assisted listening systems and voice-activated technology. It’s really about giving residents control and the ability to self-inform.”

Just as the wide range of electrical needs at senior living communities provides opportunities for training apprentices, the settings also offer opportunities for partnering among contractors.

John Hartmann, vice president of Hartmann Electric Co. Inc., Elk Grove Village, Ill., invited Malko Communications to partner in serving Presbyterian Homes. Though Hartmann Electric is fully capable of serving all of the senior community’s electrical needs, it has mainly installed new fiber optic and copper cable.

“The work in senior communities is the lightest commercial work we do,” Hartmann said, “but there’s a growing demand for data transmission everywhere. Most retirement communities are 20 years or older. That infrastructure is not going to accommodate the broadband width for telecommunicating face to face.”

Senior living projects have made up approximately 20% of Malko Communications’ business mix, depending on the year, Pedergnana said. That’s due in part to Hartmann recognizing distinct advantages in partnering.

“They’re good at developing and designing communications systems that serve the needs of individual communities,” Hartmann said. “They’re also good at providing instruction to clients.”

Unlike in a Class A office building, staff and older adults in senior living communities often are not as familiar with the technology enhancing their communications, Pedergnana said.

“Setting up interactive communication systems requires a great deal of listening and coaching on the part of the electrical contractor,” he said.

“Which isn’t for everybody,” Hartmann said.

Collaborating with staff and residents during and after installation requires skills not necessarily taught in the trades.

“It’s more about soft skills, customer service, patience, responsiveness and clear communication,” Pedergnana said.

Fostering trust is also key to serving this business segment, because journeymen, apprentices and technicians must work around people made vulnerable by age and infirmity, Pedergnana said.

As with any project, completing a needs assessment is crucial to match the goals of senior living communities with supportive technologies, Pedergnana said.

“It’s a little more complex, because connectivity has become key to managing care and engagement,” Pedergnana said. “It’s more of a systems-integration approach, which takes lots of care and attention.”

Also unique to senior settings are older and ornate buildings. Fortunately, Wi-Fi mobility reduces the need to modify structures and limits disruption to community activities, he said. One main advantage is enabling staff to keep connected while administering care at various building and campus locations.

Hartmann and Pedergnana appreciate the value of nurturing long-term relationships with senior living communities and with other contractors.

“We do see this as an area with growth opportunities,” Hartmann said. “The pandemic really forced this evolution. If you can’t be with someone in person, seeing them on video and being able to talk with them is the next best thing. It’s important to be able to support this new technology.”

Hartmann, Pedergnana and Rubin anticipate that reliance on newer technologies will grow as more computer-savvy baby boomers enter senior living communities.

“There’s no end to expectations, even in bathroom technology,” Rubin said. “Heated seats are next!”

About the Author
Susan DeGrane

Susan DeGrane

Susan DeGrane is a Chicago-based freelance writer. She has covered electrical contracting, renewable energy, senior living and other industries with articles published in the Chicago Tribune, New York Times and trade publications. Reach her at sdegra...

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