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Market indifference to aging -- cars, phones, traveling, packaging

Market indifference -- the mobility gap.  You've seen the driver -- too short to see over the wheel, too timid to change lanes safely, maybe taking multiple chronic disease medications -- and still driving. In 15 years, 1 out of 5 drivers will be 65 or older. "The result is a 'mobility gap,' Joseph Coughlin, head of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's AgeLab, which develops technologies aimed at keeping older people active" said in an interview.  Cars can be made smarter, he says, to help save us. But as a society and marketplace, what are the solutions for today's older driver -- let's say just those 4 million above the age of 80? They can call the bus, take the RIDE, ask a friend, but as the current scenario stands -- to stop driving is, as he says, to be on 'house arrest'. Who would want to tell them to stop driving with this patchwork of transportation alternatives, especially in the suburbs where most live?

Market indifference -- the cell phone gap. Forty-two percent of the 65+ are without a cell phone.  Hmmm, why do you suppose?  Do you think it's just because older adults see no purpose in them? Or do they conclude that devices that have generally small screens, small buttons, poorly separated controls, a joke of a keyboard for texting, and I haven't even started in on smart phones.  The itsy-bitsy keys on my BlackBerry Curve are a hoot -- and I have small hands, steady fingers and can touch-type, but I have yet to get a complete sentence right the first time. Watching iPhone users flip around their screens searching in vain for punctuation, no wonder iPhone messages are so, shall we say, cryptic? Why would anyone with arthritis in their hands or less than perfect vision want to bother? So they could Tweet or read spam with better backlighting? Luckily, only 4 percent of the over-65 crowd have one -- and that number will not move much until vendors care more.

Market indifference -- the traveler gap.  That brings me to a traveler's rant about hotel tubs.  Clearly hotel chains expect that the average traveler is young, nimble-footed, sharp-eyed and not at all worried about falling or there would a well-placed grab bar in that extra-slippery tub of the Hyatt I was just in. Or the grab bar in the Marriott bathroom would have been placed in the middle of the glass-like tub where it could be reached when a not-so-fleet-footed person slipped -- instead it is inaccessible at the far end of the tub. I give Hyatt credit, though -- someone must have fallen and sued them -- there was a rolled up bath mat under the sink; and Marriott staff have told me that if I like, I can have a permanent request for a mat in my profile. After enduring a near-humiliating 'security theater' experience at the airport, being jammed into sardine seats on the plane, and risking a life in the hotel tub, why would anyone at the older end of the 65+ population travel unless they had to for holidays -- when 22 passengers on one flight, no kidding, required wheel chairs last year?

Market indifference -- the packaging gap.  Finally, who in the marketplace cares about the near-unbelievable inaccessibility of packaged goods?  Unyielding plastic-wrapped bottle tops, hack-sawed clamshell packaging of electronic goods, not-so-easy open vacuum sealed jars and packaged shipments that require a surgeon to open the so-secure taped box.

What we buy and pay money for when we're feisty and mobile will eventually become the obstacle course of our later lives. Let's remind everyone who markets to us (hotel, car, airline, supermarket) that these experiences designed by the young for the young will dwindle in appeal as the not-so-young become older.  If all baby boomers made a fuss to each and every marketer whose product or service is dauntingly difficult to access, and if all towns had advocates trying to humanize transportation and other services, how livable and civilized life could be -- regardless of age.

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Your blog should be required reading in business schools across America, especially those like Babson and Stanford where entrepreneurship is taught. As an MBA from Harvard who cared for both parents during the last decade of their lives (see my recent book Don't Give Up on Me! available only at www.dontgiveuponthem.com) there is a surging interest in providing service and technology solutions for elders, much of which is off track. Boomers will demand market changes, there are just too many of us, and smart entrepreneurs will not be indifferent.

I totally agree.

Laurie, Your irreverance for the vendors in this market is a "hoot". Right on but a hoot!

As for your first observation. Driving. Most assisted living facilities have buses for scheduled needs. Why don't more of them have Video Conferencing capability? This would save gas, reduce emmissions, be more accessible for seniors and the disabled and allow seniors to hang up thier keys if they want to. It would alos open up a new world of access to education, hobbies, special intest groops and medical and social options.

A big screen TV would make internet and social networking easier for the elderly. Text to speech would make cell phones and texting much easier. We have voice commands for many electronic products, why not Cell Phones, TV's, PERs, and home appliances. I wonder how much battery life would suffer if vendors mounted a video projector to the side of a cell phone that allowed people to project a larger image on a wall in thier homes. Who knows, it could even replace the need for a TV, saving space and elliminating one more falling hazard.

I won't even start on bathroom and kitchen safety.

Keep up the good work. The squeeky wheel always gets oiled first.

Laurie - thanks as always for an incredibly poignant post. To respond to the previous post, as the product of a top rated MBA program with a strong entrepreneurship curriculum myself, I am shocked that more innovative programs related to senior mobility have not emerged. We designed SilverRide (www.silverride.com) in 2006 out of a recognition of this exact trend. I hear from our clients (now 700+ in the Bay Are) every day that giving up the keys was so much easier knowing there is a solution like SilverRide that has their dignity, independence and quality of life in mind when it comes to mobiity. What this requires, however, is for people to be conscious of saving for their "driving retirement" - definitely a mind shift in a world where cities and adult children have traditionally been relied upon to fill the gap. With states going bankrupt, funding drying up and the sandwich generation being increasingly stretched and geographically disparate, seniors who value independence will need resources to afford a workable and satisfying transportation solution when their time comes. Here's to national expansion!

Marketers/Manufacturers are behind the curve when it comes to the items mentioned in your blog post (Market indifference to aging -cars, phones, traveling, packaging). I do believe however, that if current companies don't begin to shift their focus (to aging boomers/seniors) new companies/brands will swoop in and fill the void (look at the Jitterbug J and Just5 cell phones for example).

Transportation issues have always been an issue for seniors... however with 78 million (aging) boomers, this seems like a market that's ripe for a new player/s to make some headway. I think the price-point issue as it relates to transportation + other needs (errand services, wait times, companion services, etc.) make for a fascinating discussion.

Great post,

Chris Clark
The Senior List.com