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Robert Powell’s Retirement Portfolio: Are senior citizens the future of smart technology?

Most of the current technology available is not designed with older aging adults in mind as the potential end user. 

Keren Etkin, author of The AgeTech Revolution and publisher of The Gerontechnologist blog, is working to change all that. And she’s hopeful. In fact, she envisions a world in which technology, in the not-too-distant future, will take into account older adults in the design process as well as solve some of the biggest challenges in aging, including housing, transportation, social isolation and loneliness. 

“Developing technology to tackle the challenges of aging is the single most important opportunity of the next decade,” she wrote in her book.

In a nearly one-hour interview, Etkin talked about the major themes in her book as well as her latest Annual AgeTech Market Map, which identifies technology firms providing products and services for older adults.

Etkin, who has a master’s degree in gerontology, began her career in the “aging industry” in 2014 working in the nonprofit sector. Her work there was important and impactful. “We were making a real difference in people’s lives,” she said. 

Unfortunately, it wasn’t scalable. The nonprofit had limited financial and human resources. “We simply couldn’t reach everyone who needed our assistance,” she said.

What’s more, she wasn’t able to focus on technology. That all changed, she wrote in her book, when she was recruited in 2016 to work for Intuition Robotics, the maker of social robot ElliQ. “I was incredibly excited because technology is scalable and we could mass produce as many robots as we wanted to, in theory, to help as many older adults as we needed to,” she said

And ever since then, she’s focused exclusively on the intersection of aging and technology.

Include older adults in the digital transformation

According to Etkin, our society is going through an unprecedented digital transformation simultaneously with an unprecedented demographic transformation. For instance, there’s been a significant increase in life expectancy and a significant decrease in birthrates. And because of that, the dependency ratio (the number of people in the workforce versus those outside the workforce) and the caregiver ratio (the number of potential caregivers aged 45 to 64 for each person aged 80 and older) are declining. 

Technology is usually developed by younger people for younger people. And more often than not older adults are overlooked and not included in the development process. “It’s only natural that if you are a product designer or a software developer, you want to build something for yourself and for your friends,” she said.

Age tech-focused companies, however, are not only developing technology specifically for the challenges of aging, but many are including older adults in the development process from the very beginning. 

“The reason why I was recruited (to Intuition Robotics) is because the founders were very adamant about including older adults from the very beginning before we had a product,” she said. “Just getting their input on what we needed to build for them was immensely valuable. And I don’t think the company could have been where it is today had we not done that.”

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How to bridge the digital divide

Most, if not all, tech that’s being used today and that will be developed in the future to tackle the challenges of aging in the future depends on an internet connection, Etkin said. Unfortunately, not all older adults have an internet connection; there’s a digital divide that must be bridged. In fact, an internet connection is no longer a nice-to-have, it’s a necessity.

What’s more, older adults must master digital tools or risk being left behind in the digital divide. And to master those tools, they will need digital literacy education. 

What’s more, many older adults have had “not-so-great” frustrating experiences with technology. “It’s made them feel incompetent,” she said. “It’s made them feel bad about themselves through no fault of their own.”

And the good news, according to Etkin, is that “most older adults do want to learn to use new stuff. So the trend is very, very positive.”

Tech for older adults must be usable and desirable

Not so long ago, technology firms built products to tackle the challenges of aging, such as hearing aids. But those products, along with walkers and personal emergency response systems, were, according to Etkin, “not very well designed” and “ugly.”

Those products served a purpose and were functional devices but “none of them made people proud to own or to use, and certainly not to wear on your body,” said Etkin.

Fast forward to the late 2010s, and we now have devices such as the Apple
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watch that are serving adults and helping prevent falls. It’s both usable and desirable. 

“There’s been a shift,” she said. “And today people realize, probably because older adults are finally involved in the design process, that it’s not enough to make things functional and useful. You also have to make them beautifully designed and really make people want to buy them and use them. That’s what consumer products are about in this day and age. And for a lot of years, for many, many years, there was this assumption that older adults, we didn’t need to design stuff for older adults. We had to design things to look pretty for everyone else, but when you reached a certain age, that’s it, we can make everything gray for you, right? And that has changed. And I think it’s a blessing, right?”

To be sure, many firms such as Apple and Amazon
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are getting into this ecosystem not “because they’re huge philanthropists” but rather “they see the business opportunity and they understand that they have to make great products if they want all their consumers to buy them and use them. It’s that simple.”

How to solve two big problems with aging

According to Etkin, social isolation and loneliness are huge challenges that have been almost hiding in plain sight until COVID. “I feel like COVID has certainly brought up this discussion about loneliness and social isolation in the general population and for older adults in particular,” she said. “Because people had to shelter in place for months. And I feel like people are talking about this so much more.”

From her vantage point, technology can address various aspects of social isolation and loneliness. For instance, technology can be used to increase the frequency of social interactions a person has. To be sure, not everyone is online but those who are can have multiple social interactions a week on their computer or smartphone. And that wasn’t possible even 15 years ago. “We just didn’t have the technology,” she said.

Autonomous vehicles, which are “just around the corner,” will be a game changer for older adults who wish to age in place and stay in the community they know and love but either don’t feel like it’s safe for them to drive anymore or they’re physically not able to drive anymore,” said Etkin. “They won’t have to depend on favors from family and friends to get a ride to the community center or to go to catch a movie or grab coffee with friends,” she said. “They can get an autonomous Uber. And it’s likely that it will also be safer for older pedestrians because we know older pedestrians are disproportionately affected by motor vehicle crashes.”

And, if we look at the long-term future, Etkin thinks the metaverse could make a significant impact on loneliness and social isolation. 

“Decades into the future, you and I could be sitting in our living room, or you in your work room and I in my living room, and we could fool our senses to the extent that we would feel as if we’re in the same room. How great would that be? Like, I could have coffee with my grandma every day, even though she lives two hours away. So if we get it right, I think it could really be a game changer. And I really am excited about what’s ahead.”

Challenges in the world of finance

One challenge for older adults is making sure their wealth span matches their lifespan.

That’s not so easy to do given that people are living longer, inflation is rising, and housing and healthcare, including personal care, are expensive. Thankfully, there are some tech-enabled solutions, according to Etkin.

For instance, GetSetUp has an accelerator for older adults who want to start a business. And there are various platforms for those who want to continue using their existing skills as a freelancer and get paid for it. Ride-share companies such as Onward specifically cater to retirees who want to drive. Plus, there are many online financial planning apps that allow you to assess whether you’ll have enough money to fund your retirement, said Etkin.

Etkin also said that we need to rethink the concept of retirement. “Maybe it’s not a good idea anymore to force anyone into retirement,” she said. “Maybe we should allow people to continue working for as long as they are able and willing.”

The housing challenge

Most people prefer to age in place. But the tendency for governments and also, sometimes, for families is to say that the easiest solution would be to send people to senior living, said Etkin. That’s a great option for some people, those who want to live in senior living and can afford to live in such housing. But it’s not a great option for everyone. 

Unfortunately, as people age and become less independent, aging in place doesn’t work forever. “Sometimes the home doesn’t work for them anymore,” said Etkin.

Home renovations can solve some of the problems associated with aging in place. But such renovations are not necessarily affordable for all people. 

For some, downsizing, especially in the U.S. where homes are bigger, becomes an option, said Etkin. 

“When people reach a certain age, when they’ve reached the status of empty-nesters, they probably won’t downsize right then and there, but a decade or two after that they may realize that this big home doesn’t serve them anymore,” she said. “It’s just too much to clean, to maintain. There are too many stairs. It’s not safe.”

So if people are looking to downsize, the only options that they had until recently were to either rent or buy a smaller apartment or move into senior living. 

But now we have in-between solutions such as UpsideHōM, which is a network of premium, age-diverse apartments. With UpsideHōM, “you can move into a fully serviced apartment and get not only a roof over your head but also an array of concierge services,” said Etkin. 

Granny pads, or what are called accessory dwelling units (ADUs) could also be a solution for those looking to downsize. 

Not all housing solutions are digital solutions, said Etkin. “It’s not all fancy AI,” she said. But there’s quite a bit of innovation and, at the end of the day, it’s all about options.

The caregiver’s support ratio

That the caregiver’s support ratio is declining should be “everyone’s worry,” according to Etkin. “We have fewer and fewer children being born and more and more people reaching very old ages,” she said. “So this means that we have a challenge.”

And the way that technology can help, said Etkin, is not by replacing humans, but rather by supporting and supplementing what humans can do. Technology can, for instance, schedule appointments with dentists and doctors. Ride-sharing, autonomous cars and delivery services will also address the caregiver shortage. “I call them timesaving services (that) technology now can support,” she said. 

And in the long-term, there’ll be more robotics and automation in our homes, said Etkin. “We already have some of that,” she said, noting the existence of iRobot vacuums and mops.

But in the future, “it’s very likely that some, if not all of the manual labor that human caregivers are currently doing can be done by robots or various automation systems in our homes, in the future,” said Etkin. “And so the human caregivers can do what they are good at; they can provide companionship and they can provide emotional support and they can just sit down and have a conversation with their older loved one or care recipient and the machines can handle the rest.”

How has COVID changed the world for older adults?

According to Etkin, COVID made the world smaller. “For older adults who have already used technology before COVID and even for those who have adopted technology because of COVID, the world was at their fingertips,” she said. 

Before COVID people were unable to have more frequent interactions with family members from all over the world. “Suddenly everyone got on Zoom,” said Etkin. “Everyone did video chat multiple times a week, if not multiple times a day. And since everyone was sheltering in place, everyone was sort of isolated and wanted to have those connections. So, for many older adults, COVID leveled the playing field to some extent.”

COVID also accelerated tech adoption beyond Zoom. Prior to COVID, older adults were too busy to learn how to use a smartphone or a computer. “COVID really changed that because people had to stay in one place,” she said. “They had to stay at home. So everyone learned how to use the computer. And everyone now is sort of reaping the benefits because they suddenly know how to do online banking and they realized it saved so much time.”

In fact, older adults now know how to order groceries online and they don’t have to carry their groceries anymore. And, they might be participating in more fitness classes online than what’s available at their local community center. And, maybe they have found some new friends online through various interest groups, “The acceleration of tech adoption that happened because of COVID put us in a really great place,” she said. “And, I’m very optimistic that we will continue this momentum and we’ll just see more innovation come up in the next few years.”

The AgeTech Market Map

Each year, Etkin publishes AgeTech Market Map, which identifies age-tech companies that have a commercially available product or are backed by venture capital. The map lists a large number of companies operating in many different spaces, including health and wellness, caregiving, senior living, home care providers, cognitive care, end-of-life planning, home care, and retirement.

The map can be a bit overwhelming. But the best way to use the map, said Etkin, is to ask yourself what are your goals and what are your challenges? What are you hoping to achieve by adopting or trying out new technology? And then got to the relevant category. So, for example, if you are looking to tackle financial wellness issues you would go to the finance category. And if you are a family caregiver, there is a category for family caregivers.

What else?

Age-tech is not just for enthusiasts, said Etkin. “I think everyone should participate in the age-tech revolution,” she said. “I don’t think it’s just for tech companies or just for investors or just for elder care providers. I think all older adults and family caregivers are definitely a part of this.”

There are also opportunities for the other adults and family caregivers to participate in various ways in the design and development of new technologies, whether that’s through local organizations that run pilots with startups or through national organizations such as AARP or AGE-WELL in Canada or The Centre for Aging + Brain Health Innovation (CABHI), or the Longevity Explorers, or OATS, the Older Adults Technology Services

“There are many ways to participate and it’s also OK not to participate,” said Etkin. “If you just want to be a consumer that’s OK, too.”

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