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Can anyone make money with designs that are just for seniors?

The more innovation there is, the more some things don’t change.  Stroll through this Aging 2.0 Summit link – and you will see pages of logos of new, newer, and newest companies trying to make a technology or product that could be used to serve seniors – or perhaps help those who serve them. Or the AARP Health50 Live Pitch, or the Stanford Longevity Design Challenge or the Quintiles competition at Wake Forest in North Carolina. Yet again and again, the question bubbles up – can firms make money creating and selling technology or other innovations specifically designed for seniors?  

A look back at great ideas for helping seniors.  Remember the AAHSA Idea House from 2009 with Paro the seal and Toto the toilet?  Or one of the AARP Livable Community awards – the 2009 tech-enabled Eskaton home, the MedCottage, or the future of robot helpers for seniors over the age of 65 (CEO of iRobot: "God help us if we don’t figure this out").  But robots that help seniors have been talked about for a decade or more. Message to Colin Angle of iRobot – keep at it, let’s just say it hasn’t been figured out. Consider fall detection, remote home monitoring, customized phones like the Israeli EasyToConnect smart phone from the Aging 2.0 Summit. GreatCall has done very well with senior phones, but what about special purpose 'senior' tablets like RealPad, GrandPad, Breezie, or Claris Companion? Now take a look back to 2008 with products like Big Keys or PawPaw mail or the tech-supporting Floh Club.  

Designing for all ages is feasible today.  All of these initiatives (historical and current) are worthy of admiration – entrepreneurs driven to help seniors based on the belief that the market offerings couldn’t do the job. But what about the reverse – most widely adopted mainstream products, cars, tablets, tech support, luggage, even homes, and smartphones that could be customized with software, seat adjustments, and especially training -- with basic designs viable for all ages? That means lower prices based on volume and scalability for both online and offline retail environments. Let's encourage architects to think about homes that can share the same basic designs – with removable/adjustable features for 'long-term guests' -- enabling the home's next sale to a family with an au pair. Note that technology like Findster was designed for finding lost pets and children, but also applies to the dementia care market.

DME and health care delivery technology is focused – everyone else should generalize.  Periodic attempts to broaden focus (aging-to-disability, disability-to-aging) haven't worked.  For some categories, generalization is impossible. The PERS market for worried families is a good example. Or think about technology designed to help people with disabilities -- like mobility scooters, wheel chairs, hearing aids and magnifiers. These remain (at least for a while) in narrow purpose, sometimes-reimbursed and often promoted, displayed and sold in high-priced specialty zones.  The same applies to the various regulatory and penalty hazes around healthcare technology, from Digital Health and FDA approval to HIPAA and EHR-compliance -- regulatory environments keep them narrow-cast.  But consumer-oriented technologies should be designed for all ages, with multiple uses and re-purposing possibilities.  Innovators and their incubators should ask: how does this concept a) scale up to volume or b) be re-purposed for other and broader markets?


Your second paragraph addresses the issue for me. Thanks for saying it.

Good post, and very true. But even companies like Great Call still have the usual Achilles' heel of senior-unfriendly components-- the micro-USB charger plug on my mother's Jitterbug phone, for instance. Try using that with failing eyesight and arthritis! Kindle-- tha same problem. As an old standards person, I think we need to begin developing on a set of design and manufacturing standards for "senior tech". Europe, I understand, is already doing so. Is anything happening in North America? ANSI? IEEE? I've not heard of anything but would very much appreciate any information along these lines.

Speaking of design, I came across a very good article posted in February on Smashing magazine, FYI (http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2015/02/05/designing-digital-technology-...).

Again, great post, as usual. Thanks!

The answer is yes. You can make money selling to seniors if you create products they actually need. Are these senior products something the seniors want or just technologies chasing a market??

Laurie brings up some thought-provoking points as usual. I think the answer is YES, but it's contextual--that is to say, Gero-tech has to be relevant (to Michael's point) and not-dumbed-down, but made path-of-least-resistance easy to use (that's what's universal in the design, we all appreciate that).

Not to push any particular product, but Gary Rotman developed a product designed specifically for seniors (med reminder system) by taking existing technology that's familiar to older adults (clock-radio) and embedding a high tech application--trojan horse approach if you will. The product is relevant, and useful, but getting older adults and caregivers exposed to it is the barrier to adoption-problem. He's struggling with portals to entry for the market...This seems to be the issue. When that is cracked, the problem will be solved for those with a better mouse trap.

Patrick Roden

What I've been amazed at is that the individuals that are creating these products and the executives / management at the senior living communities think that seniors need "dumbed down" childlike interfaces to be able to use and enjoy technology. As an organization that shows seniors how to use mainstream devices and encourages them to embrace change, the independent seniors that we teach want the exact devices their children and grandchildren use. Just because they are older - doesn't mean they aren't able to learn. Laurie's point about TRAINING is huge. They do need high touch, relevant and practical training to show them how to use the functions that are important to them to stay connected to family, friends and life as it is lived today.

One final comment....did I mention training. There are a couple of us out there that are focused on delivering training on mainstream devices. Tom Kamber, the Executive Director of Senior Planet in NYC...fabulous organization and training facilities. The folks at Generation Connect out of York Pennsylvania. Bluehair Technology Group - Jane Ratliff - our of Atlanta, GA. San Diegos Futures organization whose mission, in part, is to provide information technology to underserved populations by providing technology equipment, training, to low-income households, people with disabilities, and seniors.

Jane Ratliff
ED - Bluehair Technology Group

Congratulations on not drinking the proverbial Kool-Aid. I commend this post on two fronts, one as a senior citizen myself and second as someone working for a company in the elder care space that has actually made a tremendous impact in the four years since it was launched. While CareLinx has never aggressively chased the media limelight, it is admittedly a head-scratcher to see those that got the "halo" you mention come and go with no product, no progress, no track record to show for it. Next time you find yourself in the San Francisco area, I would welcome the opportunity to introduce you to our founder, Sherwin Sheik, who quietly built our online marketplace to connect families in need of caregivers with professional providers who are not only screened and vetted, but covered with $1 million in insurance for peace of mind. Well, maybe not too quietly -- we've got more than 100,000 caregivers and we're helping thousands of families across the top 50 metro areas and elsewhere. More than just an idea, Sherwin's proof of concept is in the field, every day, helping seniors. Thank you for your blog!

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