Technology for Older People Doesn’t Have to Be Ugly

‘Big, beige and boring’ is out. A new emphasis on aesthetics is in, and it could transform elder tech.

Technologies aimed at keeping older people healthy have long combined cumbersome form and infantilizing function. Way back in 1947, you could strap on a wearable heart-rate detector and go for a stroll. (At 85 pounds, it was “wearable” only on your back, and not for long.) In 1975 the American International Telephone Corp. began selling necklace-style alert systems that could summon an ambulance in an emergency. By 2009 you could buy a wearable device to detect if you’d taken a fall in your home.

Only today is the elder-tech industry finally going mainstream. In September, Apple announced its latest Watch, which includes all the aforementioned capabilities in a small, sleek package. This is merely the latest in a series of developments suggesting a tipping point: Health technology for older people is now designed not merely to be endured, but embraced.

Historically, many such technologies prioritized bodily needs over aesthetics. This is true of the Life Alert necklace of yore and some fall-detection startups today. Many of these technologies were designed by young people who couldn’t imagine themselves actually using them. The byword for the boatloads of medication-reminder systems, simplified cellphones, hearing aids, gigantic remote controls and so forth became “BBB”: big, beige and boring.

This forced older consumers to choose: Spend money and energy on an unappealing technology, or go without it. Many picked the latter, with real health consequences. According to the Hearing Loss Association of America, people with hearing loss go seven years on average between detecting a problem and seeking a hearing device. That hesitation can lead to social isolation and household accidents. Perhaps 4% of Americans who could benefit from a personal emergency-response system such as Life Alert have one, and even those who own the devices tend not to wear them, or fail to use them when emergency strikes.

Which companies, we wondered, would go all-in and develop new products serving older adults’ desires and aspirations? Which would commit to user experience like tech companies do for other consumers? The market exists to justify it; the aging of the baby boom generation and lower fertility rates mean that by 2030 the percentage of the U.S. population 65 and older will be as high as it is in Florida today.

An early sign of life came in 2014. The online pharmacy PillPack announced it would package medications not according to type, but time of day to be consumed. The meds came in ticker-tape dispensers that made it hard to forget if you’d already taken your pills. Such packaging, PillPack founder T.J. Parker told us, had been a fixture of nursing homes since the late 1980s, but making it into a consumer product was an innovation.

Amazon bought PillPack this year for $1 billion. Two months later, Best Buy announced it is purchasing GreatCall, the maker of the elder-oriented Jitterbug phone, for $800 million. Now with Apple’s entry into the personal emergency-response market, 2018 will go down as the year elder tech sneaked into the wider marketplace. Tucked away within the elegant Apple Watch, technologies like fall detection and heart-rate monitors may be cured of their stigmas.

As product design shifts to the major tech companies, we may soon see heightened attention to detail, usability and engineering. Aesthetics, heretofore largely ignored in the elder-tech industry, will likely become central. And as the focus on older consumers’ preferences goes beyond the development of better products to the creation of new product categories, the experience of later life may improve substantially. That’s the promise of the longevity economy: A longer life can—and should—be a better life.

Mr. Coughlin is founder and director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology AgeLab and author of “The Longevity Economy: Inside the World’s Fastest-Growing, Most Misunderstood Market.” Mr. Yoquinto is a science writer and research associate at the MIT AgeLab.

Source: Wall Street Journal

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