Nonprofit dynamo Kathryn Roberts of Ecumen drives tech innovation for the aging

by Ernest Grumbles

Kathryn Roberts EcumenWhat’s old is what’s new. Or at least, what’s new is what’s happening for the old.

We are about to experience a massive demographic shift in the United States such that by 2050, senior citizens will make up 20% of the population.

Our nation, still young itself on the world stage, has never focused on the needs of the aging as much as other cultures have. Marketers, product developers, and software developers have seen those 18-30 as the drivers of demand and innovation.

Well, the change is coming.

Kathryn Roberts is President and CEO of Ecumen, a 4,000 employee senior services non-profit based in the Twin Cities. She has recognized this as the opportunity that it is and aims to better serve this emerging market by leading with an open focus on innovation and technology.  Ecumen re-branded in 2004 and since shifted primary focus from nursing homes to senior housing — now routinely engaging with the tech industry to look for ways to improve the life of its clients.

As one example, Ecumen now employs GE’s QuietCare technology in much of its housing. QuietCare monitors and transmits information on residents’ daily activities, looking for deviations from routine that could indicate distress or incapacitation.

Ecumen is also an active partner with Mill City Commons, working to build a virtual senior-oriented community that overlays the real neighborhood in view of the Guthrie and aims at keeping people in their neighborhood “for life.”

Seniors in Ecumen’s system also have access to Ecumen Connects, a social network that connects seniors with each other and allows for viewing and sharing many types of digital content.

As a result of these other critical innovation steps, Ecumen is on solid financial and operational footing and is a national leader in harnessing technology for the benefit of our growing aging population (not just for teens and 20-somethings).

“[P]eople want to stay in their own homes and . . . people really need support to do it so that they’re not isolated and they’re getting the services they need. They need to be empowered to be as independent as they possibly can be. This is an incredible time to be doing work in changing aging. The forces of consumer desire, demographics, technology, public policy and longevity have created such fertile ground for collaboration and innovation in Minnesota and far beyond.  It’s all about creating ways to empower people.” — Kathryn Roberts, CEO, Ecumen.