Making Technology Work for Elders in the New Longevity Economy

Making Technology Work for Elders in the New Longevity Economy

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Photo: Venture capitalist Stephen Johnston, co-founder of Aging 2.0, is shown speaking at the recent Gerontological Society of America conference on new tech for older Americans. 

WASHINGTON, D.C.--Aging isn’t only a health issue. It’s also a lifestyle issue. Rapid advances in technology are changing the way we care for older adults – and how older adults care for themselves.

“We’re seeing amazing new startups that are bringing innovation to improve the lives of older people,” said Stephen Johnston, co-founder of the San Francisco based technology venture-capital “accelerator,” Aging 2.0.

An “Ecosystem of Innovators”

It’s vital to involve older adults in what Johnston called “the ecosystem of innovators” along with entrepreneurs, technologists, designers, investors and long-term care providers. “It’s all about making really good products that solve the needs of individuals and their individual issues,” he added.

As the youngest baby boomers turn age 50 this Dec. 31--and the oldest reach 69--there is both need and opportunity to help them age at home, rather than being forced to move prematurely due to manageable health conditions, and to help them live healthier lives.

More than a source of investment funds, Aging 2.0 offers business mentorship and support for top startups in aging and long-term care. They connect entrepreneurs with senior care executives, long-term care distributors, industry influencers, investors and end users – older adults and caregivers.

At it’s best, the venture capital process results in well-designed and useful technologies that enhance an older person’s life, whether it’s a new type of debit card to help prevent financial abuse or assisting families in finding qualified, vetted caregivers and process the necessary paperwork.

“Human-Centric” with Dignity, Respect

Johnston explained, “We’re seeing new technologies that are really human-centric, person-centric--and innovators that are thinking, ‘How can we give somebody independence, keep their self-respect and dignity, but also use technology in a way that actually makes it more efficient and improves care and keeps families closer and more connected.”

One such example is a new type of movement sensor placed around the home, and connected to a web or mobile application. Because the product is stylishly designed and well constructed, it’s more about a communication experience than a “big brother is watching” experience, Johnston said. “However, it allows a person to live independently while alerting family members to concerns, such as if a pillbox hasn’t been opened in a couple of days.”

Similarly, “smart” clothing might have a wandering prevention system to alert a caregiver if somebody with cognitive impairment has left the house or it might have some tracking system to be able to track heartbeat or vital signs.

But there is more to the aging market than just health. A 2013 Bloomberg conference estimated that the “longevity economy” [] accounted for some $3.5 trillion in economic growth.

$7.1 Trillion a Year

A report from Oxford Economics and AARP estimates that the 106 million people over age 65 in the U.S. generate at least $7.1 trillion in economic activity each year. Oxford expects that figure to grow to $13.5 trillion by 2032.

Only about a third of these expenditures are health-related, said Johnston. The longevity economy, which also includes travel, financial services, housing, and consumer products, is fertile ground for entrepreneurial and innovative companies to address the needs of this powerful demographic.

“The really smart companies are doing this in a way that requires little or no effort on the part of the user; these are products really particularly suited for the older population,” he said.

It’s not about creating a separate niche – there’s no one product for those over 65 any more than there is one product for those under 65. Johnston finds that the most successful efforts to enhance quality of life for older adults connects them with young entrepreneurs and investors, to create simple, useable products that are also well designed and relevant. Age becomes secondary.

Older adults in the United States still lag behind in tech adoption according to a recent Pew Internet study. However, that is slowly changing.

Johnston said lower-cost, user-friendly technologies are being designed for every possible use to meet increasing demand.

Access for Ethnic Elders

That’s especially important given the growing diversity of the older population. The proportion of ethnic elders will double in the next 30 years, experts say, when more than four in 10 seniors in the U.S. will from minority groups.

Shifting demographics mean “it will be important to consider cultural dynamics of minority groups in the design, selection, and use of any new tool,” said researchers in a 2010 study from Oregon State University.

The study examined emerging needs of older Korean and Hispanic women in the U.S. that might be aided by technologies ranging from devices that help manage multiple medications to wearables developed to track such functions as heart rate or sleep, to make life easier and safer for an older person – and for their family caregivers.

But in focus groups with the elders, the Oregon researchers contrasted these positive potentials with negative themes, mainly financial concerns, language barriers for usability, and concerns about possible physical effects of electronics.

Aging 2.0’s Johnston emphasized that the most successful technologies will go well beyond creating a good product – they will fill a real need by providing a well-designed solution.

Liz Seegert wrote this article with support from the Journalists in Aging Fellows Program of the Gerontological Society of America and New America Media, sponsored by the Silver Century Foundation. You can listen to her interview with Stephen Johnston on WBAI-FM, NYC here.