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From facial recognition software to auto-correct tools, you’ve probably used artificial intelligence (AI) several times today. This intuitive technology has been developed over several decades and has quickly made its way into our daily lives.

Now, AI and robotics are making a grand entrance into the senior living sector. And the timing couldn’t be better. Following the pandemic, long-term care workforce levels are at a 15-year low.

AI is doing its part to help cultivate an environment where staff and residents can have meaningful connections with one another, despite most communities being short-staffed.

Optimize Available Staff

The long-term care sector has lost more than 400,000 caregivers since the pandemic’s beginning. As providers struggle to hire and keep staff, they are looking to automation to optimize their current workforce, especially within dining.

Justin Smith, Innovation and Technology Manager at Direct Supply, says his team is looking to help senior living organizations in any way they can.

“We’re hearing that some of our customers have a turnover rate as high as 100%. We want to positively impact the staffing issues communities are facing, and one way we are doing that is through automation using AI and robotics,” he explains. 

An American Health Care Association (ACHA) survey revealed that 99% of nursing home providers ask staff to work overtime and take extra shifts. With a tired, overworked staff, AI can relieve some of the burden and give dining staff the availability to focus on quality, personalized service. 

“The goal is to automate all the running back and forth in the dining room so staff can focus on engaging residents,” says Smith.

Increase Workforce Compensation

Not only are robots giving time back to senior living staff, but they’re also putting more money in their pockets. Smith says a community in Florida is saving 100 FTE hours per robot per week by using robots to automate specific tasks within their dining service. The community is choosing to use that cost savings to boost wages.

“They can now pay their current frontline staff a higher wage because of the savings they incurred from the automation. As a result, it gives that staff a higher quality of life, and it potentially could attract new staff because they can offer more competitive compensation,” he notes. 

With 98% of long-term care facilities experiencing difficulty hiring staff, deploying new methods to attract talent is necessary. In dining services, senior living communities are competing with fine dining restaurants for staff. Offering competitive wages and better hours may give them the edge they need to recruit staff from the restaurant sector.

Foster Meaningful Connection

People may be skeptical of robots within the seniors living space. Leadership may be concerned that the robots may give the dining room a cold, sterile, or impersonal feeling. But Smith says that couldn’t be further from the truth.

“Our goal is not to replace people with inanimate objects. It’s about optimizing the workforce you already have,” says Smith. “With the majority of providers right now being short-staffed, we’re providing solutions for augmenting the staff they can’t find. Not replacing the staff they already have in the building.”

Smith says automating monotonous tasks like running dirty dishes to the dishwasher and bringing food to the table gives dining staff the time to have meaningful engagements with residents. This means they can ask how their grandchildren are, if they enjoyed their meal, and what their plans are for the day — without feeling rushed.

This extra time spent with residents and providing “above and beyond” service has been proven to foster friendly staff and resident relationships. AI allows a short-handed dining services team to still make these enriching connections.

Leverage Perceived Value

Interestingly, robots in the dining room have increased resident satisfaction in some communities. However, Smith says he believes this is because of the perceived benefit, but not necessarily actual benefit.

“At one site, robots were delivering food, and the residents’ perception was that their food was arriving faster and hotter. But we did the measurements, and that wasn’t the case. Still, it is seen as a value to the resident to have a robot deliver their food,” explained Smith.

Though dining room robots are new to the senior living industry, they aren’t a new technology. Smith says that people have developed and used the robots in Asia for 10 to 20 years, so there is a lot of built-up knowledge and experience behind them. 

“We’re just starting to see this technology evolve in the senior living sector, and it’s exciting. Residents are excited about it too. AI will only continue to evolve and optimize senior living services,” he said.