Access to digital communication will be a critical piece of healthy aging
One of the greatest risks of aging is losing our social networks, cautions Paul Irving, chairman of the Milken Institute’s Center for the Future of Aging. The loss of peer connection, coupled with increasingly limited physical mobility, can lead to isolation. “From the time we start school and throughout our careers, we are constantly building and expanding our social networks,” Irving says. “But when we retire, our networks often begin to shrink.”
For this reason, access to digital communication will be a must-have for aging populations this century, creating a massive new market opportunity for companies targeting this critical niche. Venture capital is pouring into startups to help bring their ideas to the market, and established industry leaders are reconfiguring their products and services offerings to meet the unique needs of this demographic.
Older adults have the capacity to adapt to and benefit from changing technologies, Irving says, as evidenced by a rapid growth in smartphone ownership and increasing participation in social networks among people 65 and older. In the U.S., Internet access for users over the age of 65 has climbed 40 percent since 2010, according to the Census Bureau. The challenge for the tech sector, though, is that seniors engage with technology differently than younger generations do, he says. With seniors projected to be by far the largest—and wealthiest—demographic in coming years, existing companies and startups alike need to focus their efforts on tapping into this fast-growing market.
One key area of innovation is designing software that simplifies existing operating systems and social media sites. For example, promising new companies are developing software that will reformat popular online services into streamlined interfaces that are easier to use for people with limited technical experience. Other companies are coming to market with a slew of new tablets and computers that feature touch screens, bigger buttons and typefaces, and amplified audio—and that are easier to hold on to.
A central element to all the new products targeting the senior market is their stripped-down list of features. Most offer the basics—access to the Internet and email, video chatting, photo sharing, and news and weather. Some even come with special software that caretakers or family members can download on to their computers so they can access their loved one's computer remotely to make sure they are active and engaging regularly with other people or to troubleshoot any tech issues.
“If demography is destiny, we have an extraordinary opportunity to generate economic growth by creating new businesses to serve the unique needs of older adults.” – Paul Irving, Chairman of the Milken Institute’s Center for the Future of Aging.
Other companies are developing Internet sites and apps specifically for the senior market. Consider Tapestry and its recent spinoff, Stitch. Tapestry was launched in Australia in 2013 to address the growing worry over senior isolation. It started as a photo-sharing site that allowed grandparents to stay connected with faraway grandchildren without the complication of setting up and logging in to social networking sites. It creates a closed connection with your chosen contacts that allows for file sharing and messaging without exposing personal information on the Internet.
Stitch is a web-based social networking site targeted specifically to seniors. Instead of matchmaking, Stitch is designed to generate companionship. While dating is an option, Stitch users can find group activities to join, such as hiking, going to the opera or hosting dinner parties. There’s even a section for users looking for travel companions.
At the same time, more traditional digital companies are acutely aware of the impact an aging society will have on their revenue and investment potential. They are increasingly targeting their products toward people in their 50s and 60s who are digitally savvy but want different products and services as they age. For example, a leading online dating service popular among younger generations understands that older generations are looking for a different dating environment. It created a separate dating site designed for single people in their 50s and older.
Digital also opens the portal to the growing roster of so-called “telehealth” companies that connect patients and caregivers with doctors and other health care professionals over the Internet, Irving says. Cloud-based platforms can store patient information while 24-hour video access to a doctor or nurse practitioner can eliminate the need to go to an office or walk-in clinic. Online tools can help monitor everything from people's moods to whether they are taking their prescriptions correctly—and access to these networks will become an increasingly important tool in the quest for healthy aging, Irving says.
Just the beginning
As critical as these digital communication innovations are, they’re no substitute for human contact, Irving cautions. Going forward, there will be tremendous opportunities for innovations that help seniors get out more, such as self-driving cars that offer mobility to seniors who can no longer drive themselves.
These innovations are just the tip of the iceberg, Irving says. In a few decades, there will likely be more people over the age of 60 than there are children and teenagers. “We are in the very early stages of what we know is a long-term change in the way people live that is driven by technology,” he says. “If demography is destiny, we have an extraordinary opportunity to generate economic growth by creating new businesses to serve the unique needs of older adults.
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