If there’s a kernel of truth in every stereotype, then the idea that the elderly don’t have a fondness for technology is likely one of them, But that hasn’t stopped seniors housing operators from trying to find the right gadgets, recently dubbed “silvertech,” that will benefit their residents.
Today, when almost every person in the U.S. under the age of 65 has either a smartphone attached to their hand or a data collector around their wrist, seniors are the last demographic where technology hasn’t made a profound impact on day-to-day life. The past five years, spurred by increasingly tiny and powerful sensor device launches, have seen a number of pilot programs at various assisted living and cognitive care facilities. These monitors keep track of sleep and bathroom time, while other wearables can track gait and steadiness and other devices help with remembering to take pills or allow for face time visits with relatives.
Still, there’s been no widespread acceptance of these new technologies in the seniors housing community. Some companies specifically geared toward finding tech gadgets geared toward seniors fizzled out. Dr. Leslie Kernisan, a geriatrician based in San Francisco who writes the blog GeriTech.org, says the problem was that the tech inventors tried to push what initially sold to young people onto people from an entirely different generation, and with entirely different needs and desires. The digital age grew mostly from a desire to get things done faster or better, not for the lifestyle of a retiree.
“The inventors aren’t connecting, they’re forgetting that the device has to meet a need for the specific user, and it has to be able to be understood by that user,” Kernisan says. “Seniors are interested in going online, and they want to use devices that can help them with convenience or entertainment; but the technology for seniors that’s billed as so fantastic and easy to use just isn’t. Plus, they don’t like to use or wear devices that remind them how vulnerable they are. It’s a challenge of getting around people’s emotions and discomfort.”
A recent report by PGIM, Prudential’s investment management arm, notes that the silvertech era is currently at the nascent stage, though the group predicts that similar to biotech and pharma investment, there will be increasing opportunities in the space over time.
“While a number of barriers still need to be overcome, we believe silvertech represents an opportunity that investors will want to closely monitor,” according to the report “A Silver Lining: The Investment Implications of an Aging World.”
The government also has been working on the problem. In march, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology released “Report to the President: Independence, Technology and Connection in Older Age.” The report insists that silvertech can help seniors by encouraging social engagement, while providing solutions to assist with cognitive and physical issues suffered by the elderly.
The report, however, cites a lot of data that seems to indicate that while seniors would certainly benefit from adopting new technology, they aren’t too keen to do so. While Internet use by older adults, including the use of social networks, has grown to almost 60 percent as of 2014, there are still many who do not wish to engage with some or any tech devices or services, for reasons such as lack of interest, perceived high costs, level of difficulty and inability to access the services, as well as just fear and privacy and security concerns. Also, though there are now more than 24,000 senior assistive tech devices, according to the Federal database AbleData, a 2014 Pew Research Center study found that only 18 percent of older adults reported feeling comfortable learning to use new devices such as smartphones or tablets. The report suggests the funding of a new government agency to monitor and regulate silvertech devices.
For new tech to be of benefit to seniors, it has to be designed with the elderly person in mind, says Steven Johnston, a co-founder of Aging2.0, which champions new tech start-ups in the seniors sector. Even Johnston admits there’s no tech yet capable of sparking massive interest among seniors. “We’re aware that the market is still trying to find its feet,” he says.
The key to reaching seniors, he notes, is by making them feel empowered and also using technology to improve their health. The new tech has to allow seniors to continue to live productive lives, while also giving them convenience in things they need, and be attractive enough to use without feeling like they’re giving up independence or dignity, Johnston says.
He notes that one seniors housing company, Brookdale, is taking the right approach. Instead of creating a product and trying to push it on its seniors community, Brookdale has brought the inventors into their facilities to live alongside the seniors to better understand their needs through its recently launched its “Entrepreneur in Residence” program.
For example, 33-year-old Mike Eidsaune, co-founder of a seniors digital app company, spent five days living among the residents at Brookdale Kettering in Dayton, Ohio. He said in a statement that he exercised, socialized, dined and participated in as many activities as he could to help him understand the residents’ needs. “Entrepreneurs designed based on their own experience and so if they are just coming out of college or graduated recently, they generally aren’t thinking about the needs of the aging,” he said.
Silvertech will eventually catch on, according to Johnston, though he’s not sure what will be the winning platform, whether it’s sensor technology, Uber-like delivery apps, self-driving cars or even service robots.
“My guess is though we’re still early on, we’re going to start seeing some very cool products. The seniors housing companies should prepare to be ready to adopt what residents demand.”