Not too long ago, the cutting edge of tech for older adults was a medical alert device made pop culture-famous by a certain TV ad catchphrase.
Things have obviously since evolved. From smart hearing aids to fall-detecting shoes to app-based home healthcare platforms, the number of startups catering to the unique needs of an aging population is on the rise.
Even the simple act of taking an all-important stroll down memory lane has moved into the realm of the cutting-edge. Established at MIT and launched from AARP’s in-house innovation lab, virtual reality startup Rendever enables residents of assisted living facilities and older adults with restricted mobility to travel the world — visiting locales both beloved and brand new — through specialized VR technology. (A hit at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, backers/partners of Rendever include MIT AgeLab, MassChallenge, Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard University.)
Among other things, these VR-guided excursions can ward off depression and isolation while increasing socialization and improving cognitive function.
“You can put it on the person you’re caring for, and you can let them do anything and go anywhere,” Rendever CEO Kyle Rand tells AARP. “All of a sudden, life is much more than the four walls around you.”
Back in the non-virtual world, the elder care services market is expected to surpass $1.49 trillion dollars in global value by 2024 with a compound annual growth rate of 8.5 percent.
Tech-driven growth within this once-dismissed market only makes sense as the number of 65-and-over consumers swells. Per a 2016 report issued by the Population Research Bureau, the number of Americans over the age of 65 is forecast to double in size from roughly 49.2 million to 98 million by 2060.
And by and large, the newly minted seniors of today — and those of years to come — are more active, independent and tech-savvy than previous generations. Ten thousand people turn 65 years-old in the United States every day and, reflective of global life expectancy trends, a huge number of them will go on to live significantly longer than their parents and grandparents.
But is this all too little, too late? Have tech startups missed the proverbial boat?
As Lloyd Alter, design editor at TreeHugger.com and adjunct professor at Ryerson University School of Interior Design in Toronto, explains, the industry of aging has already been disrupted because “it is totally missing what is happening.”
“What is going to happen when they hit 80?” ponders Alter of the influx of now-retiring baby boomers who are generally healthy, set in their ways and, for the most part, “think they are 15 years younger than they are.” While public investment in infrastructure for boomers is sorely lacking, private investment and innovation has an opportunity to fill the gap.
“The oldest boomer is now 72, but when you have 70 million boomers suddenly falling apart, you are going to have a crisis like we have never seen,” says Alter. “They all vote, many of them have money and they are going to demand action.”
As the tech market for aging adults grows in both ubiquity and profitability, cities must also evolve and adapt so that seniors can thrive within a built environment that’s not inherently friendly towards aging populations. (Like Millennials, boomers are increasingly drawn to smaller, denser and less car-dependent living arrangements.)
“New approaches are needed which link the advantages of living in cities with the needs and aspirations of older people themselves,” Chris Phillipson of the Manchester Institute for Collaborative Research in Ageing tells the Guardian.
The creation of new transit-oriented and senior-friendly housing (think: minimal or no stairs, transformable living spaces and fully ADA-compliant kitchens and bathrooms) within cities is vital as is upgrading existing housing to boost its multigenerational appeal.
And aging in place-appropriate housing is just the beginning. Per Alter, cities must adapt in other ways, starting with “safe sidewalks and infrastructure” to accommodate a rapidly aging global population. Also needed per Alter: Accessible restrooms, public seating, sound absorbing materials in restaurants and “lots of iPad menus where you can blow up the typeface and have some light.”
These infrastructural and institutional changes, as mundane as they may seem, are necessary if the urban landscape is to be more useful to an aging citizenry. And with the addition of tech-enabled services and products geared for the fast-growing elderly care market, cities have the potential to be vibrant, connected and inclusive places where improved quality of life, no matter one’s age, is just a quick click away.
If you’re working on a solution to make cities more accessible and dynamic for all age demographics or have ideas as to how we can better age in place, applications for URBAN-X cohort 06 are open. Apply by April 1st at urban-x.com/apply.
– Matt Hickman