When Lively cofounder David Glickman talks about his product, you’d think he was describing the latest high-tech gadget for millennials and not a personal emergency response system for seniors.
"We’re focused on creating products that have a lot of beauty to them," the 44-year-old Glickman says. "It doesn’t matter if you’re 10 or 90, you appreciate great design."
Lively, a company founded in 2012 that uses a combination of sensors and a wearable smartwatch to monitor seniors in their home, is just one of several companies bringing design smarts to a demographic whose most famous wearable tech is built for people who want to call authorities when they’ve fallen and can’t get up.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of people over age 65 will increase to 88.5 million over the next 35 years, double the current number. On top of that, health care costs are increasing: The elderly currently spend $300 billion each year on health care, most of which is covered by Medicare. As baby boomers age and seniors live longer, health industry folks have started talking about the "longevity economy"—an estimated $20 billion market opportunity for businesses to develop products that will provide health care services to older adults or help them live independently. "The new expectations of old age are what’s going to drive innovation in business, technology, and society," says Joe Coughlin, the director of MIT’s AgeLab.
New entrants include health care monitoring companies such as Tapestry, a tablet app that lets seniors connect with family far away; MedCoach, a medication reminder app; and HealthSpot, a primary care service that lets doctors virtually meet with patients.
"Generally, this space has not been anywhere close to a hotbed for new innovation, but the demographics are just so compelling that more people are seeing this as a space where they need to be," said John Hopper, the managing director of Linkage, a Cincinnati firm that recently launched a $26 million venture fund focusing on aging tech.
Glickman, an Apple alum, and others have recognized the opportunity. Personal emergency response systems like LifeCall have been around for decades, but Glickman is attempting to modernize that technology.
"It’s literally the last symbol of ‘I’m old and frail,’ so people don’t want to wear it," Glickman says about the pendant made famous by the "I can’t get up" commercials. "We kept hearing people asking for us to rethink that experience."
One of the biggest challenges in the aging market is that the people building—or buying—the technology aren’t always the same people using it, which can sometimes lead to a product not being as intuitive or as user-friendly for its intended older audience.
"The idea that there are young people involved in creating technology companies for a demographic that they themselves are not in is a good thing," said Laurie Orlov, founder of the market research firm Aging in Place Technology Watch. "What’s a bad thing is they may not carefully test the market potential before they create the product. Sometimes I hear a company say ‘I want to create this technology because I had a grandmother who fell down.’ That’s not market analysis."
Generator Ventures—a San Francisco firm that launched this summer as an offshoot of a social enterprise called Aging 2.0—is trying to remedy this by ensuring tech companies include older adults’ feedback during the development process and that their teams include older advisors.
"People in this space need to have a real passion," Stephen Johnston, a partner in Generator Ventures, said. "And that’s really important because a lot of these issues are human issues. It’s not just about launching a technology or putting out an app."
Just as when you’re designing headphones for teens, design is key. "The companies that are going to be successful are the ones that have this maniacal focus on the user and how they interact with technology, with each other, and with their families," says Glickman, echoing what seems to be a consensus: Ease of use—whether the user is a 55-year-old baby boomer or her 90-year old father—will trump all.