“Let’s admit it,” said Intel’s David Ryan at the recent Aging 2.0 conference celebrating the intersection of aging and technology. “We’re in the Stone Age when it comes to using technology solutions for seniors.”
But not for long.
Just three years ago, the fledgling technology incubator Aging 2.0 offered low-budget finger foods like gold fish and pretzels at a post-work mixer south of Market in San Francisco, where entrepreneurs pitched new ideas to help older adults.
Now, Aging 2.0 has blossomed into an international powerhouse matching impassioned entrepreneurs with venture capitalists. Worldwide, it has 35 volunteer chapters and has hosted 1,000 startup presentations at 175 pitch events.
Almost single-handedly, it has made aging sexy.
Driving this quest for the golden ticket of aging are the 10,000 American Baby Boomers who turn 65 daily. And these very same Baby Boomers who transformed politics, business and sexuality will also change the face of aging.
Because they are demanding. They insist on quality. And they won’t put up with the half-baked ways many older adult activities, programs and – yes— technology are being delivered today.
From the beginning, Aging 2.0’s mantra has been this: blend high-tech with high-touch.
Co-founder Katy Fike is a deeply caring gerontologist who left Wall Street after 9/11 to pursue her passion – aging.
“Cultivating empathy is the most important step in the innovation process, especially in the aging space,” says Fike. “While some of the early entrants at the intersection of tech and aging were quite heavy-handed with technology, today we are increasingly seeing a new wave of entrepreneurs who are co-creating with their end users and developing thoughtful high-tech, high-touch solutions.”
Aging 2.0’s latest conference last month, held in the center of the financial district at San Francisco’s ritzy Hyatt Hotel, broadened the definition of “technology” to include not just digital devices but online communities, an adult diaper that detects wetness, and immersive movies to treat elder depression and anxiety.
Smart homes. Smart bathrooms. Smart medicine. Facial recognition technology to help dementia patients identify friends and family. Fall prevention technology. Quality online training for caregivers. A TV studio for older adults. Online bookings for caregivers. Virtual communities. Online sales of expensive hearing aides to reduce costs. Digital family histories.
But don’t seniors hate technology?
Seniors hate poorly-designed technology.
In fact, the health insurer Humana recently reported that 500 patients with an average age of 70 lost more weight – nearly 9% – using a digital assistant when compared to a younger population. A whopping 85% of seniors participated in the program.
The desperate need for tech solutions is no more apparent than with at-home caregivers who work for In-Home Supportive Services Program (IHSS), a program California pioneered in the 1970’s to keep seniors out of expensive nursing homes.
Unbelievably, the state’s 400,000 IHSS caregivers still complete paper time sheets by hand and mail them to be processed in Chico. In May, a truck failed to deliver some of these time sheets and 40,000 caregivers went unpaid. Some were evicted from their homes. Others were forced to choose between food, rent and school supplies.
Countering this horrific tech failure is the inspiring story of SafeWander, which officially launched its monitoring device for roving dementia patients at the conference.
Now in his 20’s, the founder of SafeWander, Kenneth Shinozuka, developed the monitor prototype by the age of 14. And like many aging-technology entrepreneurs, he was inspired to create a technology solution for older adults through first-hand experience.
When Shinozuka was just eight, his beloved grandfather got lost for an hour in Alaska, and his young grandson got to work.
“Why don’t I put a pressure sensor under the heel of my grandfather’s foot?” Shinozuka told the Aging 2.0 conference. The sensor sends a wander alert to the smart phone of a caregiver or family member.
Priced at just $249, SafeWander received the first ever Dementia Smart award from the Dementia Society of America.
One fascinating piece of immersive technology on display was the “aging suit” developed by Genworth Financial, which specializes in long-term care insurance and each year publishes its annual review of long-term care costs.
The suit allows those younger and healthier to simulate the effects of aging – arthritis, joint problems, even cataracts.
A flurry of other technologies on display showcased two overarching themes.
First, most tech entrepreneurs enter the aging space through intimate experience.
“There’s a personal story behind all the technologies here,” said Shinozuka.
Second, that the various approaches addressing the challenges of aging are breathless.
The two most futuristic offerings at the conference included SAM, a four-foot tall robotic “concierge” that scours long-term care facilities searching for clutter, spills and poor lighting, and Jibo, “the world’s first social robot for the home.”
Often echoed during the conference was the famous axiom KISS: Keep It Simple Stupid.
And frequently it was these simpler solutions that proved the most intriguing: Quikiks offers footwear than can be put on and removed while standing up. Veridrop markets a plastic eye cup that helps dispense eye drops with greater accuracy.
And the always delicate balance: high-tech vs. high-touch.
The conference closed with a panel of older adults who discussed the role of technology in their lives. Each had found a healthy balance between using technology as a tool while remaining firmly rooted in the analog world.
“There’s too much out there in our world that’s absolutely mind-boggling just walking down the street on one of my daily walks” said Olive Horrell, who is 97. “I spend time outside as much as I can.”