Over the course of his career, Dennis Champ has held many jobs. He worked in sales, then spent 35 years as a chemical engineer in the plastic and chemicals industry. But now, at age 85 and well into retirement, Champ has landed a new gig as an “innovation ambassador.”
Two years ago, Champ moved in to a Revera Senior Living facility in the greater Ontario area. In 2018, the a senior care provider, with over 500 communities across North America and the United Kingdom, began looking for a resident to provide feedback on new initiatives at their facilities. After a recommendation from a recreation center coordinator — and an interview at company headquarters in Mississauga, Canada — Champ landed the gig. Champ is now one of two Resident Innovation Ambassadors at the company.
“When [you’re retired], you look for other things to add to your accomplishment list,” Champ says. “I enjoy doing it.”
Every month, Champ holds office hours in Revera’s headquarters, where employees come to him with ideas. Champ then gives feedback, bridging the gap between innovator and end-user. Recently, he organized a focus group of residents to discuss different ways to decrease slips and falls.
“I made a list of…dos and don’ts. But throwing them at people — that doesn’t work. You have to get them involved with the solutions,” Champ says. “When you talk about innovation, [it] can be a big project. It can be a little project. But that focus group was a little project that gave us a new approach to doing things.”
Innovators often discuss the importance of co-creation, a message that Revera has taken to heart. The company’s three-person innovation team (which doesn’t include the two resident ambassadors) seeks to tackle the challenges of aging collaboratively — engaging partners inside and outside of the company.
“Often, this demographic is ignored, or it is seen as a homogenous group, so that everybody over 65 is in one homogenous category, and that’s just completely incorrect,” Senior Vice President of Innovation Patricia Barbato says. “For innovators, there is so much that can be done in this space, I get so excited about it. You think about living a purposeful life, right through to the end, that has a lot of quality in it.”
From involving residents in the business to running internal idea challenges to partnering with fledgling tech companies, Revera’s team seeks to find new opportunities and solve existing problems by engaging the full spectrum of the senior living ecosystem.
Involving Residents in Innovation
Innovation Ambassadors like Champ act as the voice for residents in the retirement community. In addition to holding office hours, he also provides feedback to suppliers on new products, meets with Revera’s new hires to explain the innovation process, and travels to conferences with other innovators in aging.
“Some of the ideas [I heard] were pretty novel, some were fairly obvious,” Champ says. “So we now [give] the people who are doing [projects] some feedback that they can then turn to action, and we can proceed from there.”
Additionally, Revera also designates one resident as the company’s Chief Elder Officer. This position, currently filled by 97-year-old Hazel McCallion, gathers feedback on new ideas from residents across Revera’s different locations.
During one conversation, McCallion told Barbato, “Don’t change the soup spoons without getting feedback from your residents.” That advice has stuck with Barbato since. Barbato says gathering candid comments from residents leads to innovation that actually benefits the customer, instead of delivering interesting concepts that may miss the mark.
“We just think, ‘Time for an upgrade here.’ And we source something, and we buy it,” Barbato says. “But next thing we know, people are trying to use something that’s not as good as what they had before. And that does not make for a happy day for the customer.”
Building Inclusive Innovation Challenges
Residents aren’t just encouraged to vet ideas. They also can become active participants in bringing projects to life. Both residents and employees enter submissions for the company’s annual iChallenge.
In fact, in order for a facility to participate in the challenge, residents must be involved in some way.
“[A community] can’t submit an idea unless they identified residents who have participated in the challenge,” Barbato says. “This year…we had over 1,300 residents and family members participate, and almost 3,000 employees. So all of the winners had resident input.”
Revera’s challenge in 2018 focused on reducing falls. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, falls result in more than 800,000 hospitalizations and more than 27,000 deaths in the US annually.
One winning idea, suggested by a resident, involved installing lighting under seniors’ beds to help guide them safely to the washroom. According to Barbato, an initial pilot test of the idea has already reduced falls in communities by 40 percent.
During Revera’s first iChallenge, Barbato’s team — aided by both Resident Innovation Ambassadors and their Chief Elder Officer — vetted every submission. However, Barbato says that her team changed the judging process to give more authority to regional leadership in Revera’s care facilities.
“[This year,] we asked each of our regions to pick a winner, and they did that in various ways. They had shark tank-style activities. They had committees formed with residents and families to make a decision,” Barbato says. “[Then,] we were able to choose amongst 17, which made the whole process much smoother, more efficient.”
Revera’s national innovation team, along with the Resident Innovation Ambassadors and their Chief Elder Officer, declare gold, silver, and bronze winners. According to Champ, judges looked at factors like improving the resident experience, reducing costs, helping employees do their jobs better, and scalability. Multiple teams can win in each category. After the awards ceremony ends, Barbato says, the pilot process begins.
Piloting Ideas in Revera Communities
Barbato explains that her team kicks off the pilot process by writing a one-page plan that outlines how to execute on the idea.
“We try to identify who needs to be involved, what exactly is the problem we’re trying to solve, how are we going to test it, what are the metrics that we’re gonna measure in order to ensure that it is or is not working,” Barbato says.
After her team begins training staff and residents on how to use any new technology, the pilot launches.
“People tend to feel that seniors are not innovative. They can’t use technology; they don’t want to use technology. And that’s a bit of a myth,” Barbato says. “Many of the projects that we have done, what we have learned about working with seniors is that if you can find the thing that is important to them…they are very willing to learn.”
Most pilots at Revera last between three weeks and five months. At the end of that timeframe, Barbato and her team decides if projects should be rolled out to more communities, declared a failure, or evaluated over a longer period of time.
For example, one pilot involved using aromatherapy, massages, and a turn-down service to help residents sleep soundly. During the pilot, Barbato says, staff observed that residents with cognitive decline wandered less at night.
“It actually reduced the amount of staff time required to manage someone with dementia, who is restless and possibly confused about where they are, and therefore get out of their room and try and understand what’s happening,” Barbato says. “[We decided] to explore [further] if…we can help keep people with some dementia issues be more calm…and have a better night sleep.”
Aligning with Operations
When asked to share advice for other innovators, Barbato emphasizes the importance of “staying joined at the hip” and building relationships with the operations team.
“Our [innovation] goals are not different than what we’re trying to do as a company. We are trying to enhance the resident experience…and engage employees,” Barbato says. “We [also] want to find efficiencies and increase revenue. We want to create value for our shareholders.”
During Revera’s first iChallenge, Barbato says her team did not align with the operation team’s planning schedule, making implementing and then scaling ideas difficult.
“There wasn’t that alignment with operations on including these winners in the planning process, in project management, in prioritized lists and capital,” Barbato says. “So that was a big learning for us around the timing, making sure that we have submitted — even if it was a placeholder — for an operating budget.”
Looking for Innovation Outside
In addition to engaging residents and staff at Revera communities, the company also innovates externally. Startups can apply to Revera’s Innovators in Aging program, where selected candidates can pilot and test ideas in Revera’s senior living facilities. According to Barbato, the company has also dedicated $20 million to invest in promising companies working in the aging space.
Revera also engages with the other players in the ecosystem through Aging2.0, a network for those working to improve the lives of older adults. With 80 chapters around the globe, Aging2.0 hosts events on innovating senior care, runs an accelerator program, and facilitates connections within the ecosystem. According to co-founder Katy Fike, participants include businesses, tech companies, startups, and seniors.
“The way we talk about it is really three-fold: It’s interdisciplinary, intergenerational, and international,” Fike says. “In the innovation process, we put older adults at the center. … What we believe in is designing with [older adults], not for [them].”
According to Fike, many of the startups that Revera has run pilots with are also part of Aging2.0’s network. She points to experiments with Luna Light, a dynamic lighting solution aimed to prevent falls, and Sensassure, a startup that creates sensor-enabled incontinence briefs.
“Revera [has been] a really avid and organized pilot-er,” Fike says. “They’ve really put a lot of good process in place around identifying their priorities, having good criteria for looking for companies to partner with, capturing outcomes data, and tracking those pilots.”
According to Barbato, Aging2.0 helps her team stay connected with industry leaders and potential collaborators from around the world.
“Those relationships have been so valuable to me, because you can learn from each other,” she says. “We [can say,] ‘I already did a judging thing. I’ll send you mine.’ folCollaboration between industry leaders in innovation – that has been a huge benefit for us.”