Blog Post

Who will crack the code on tech for seniors?

While dozens of startups pour time and money into developing mobile health devices for the young, hale and hearty, they might be better off going grayer. The opportunity to sell technology to senior citizens is huge now and will only get bigger as more of us age into that segment. Which vendors will be best positioned to capitalize on this opportunity — a handful of early movers that are already in the market, or vendors like Fitbit (see disclosure) or Jawbone that focus on younguns?

“Developers making technologies for the 20- and 30-somethings are missing a huge opportunity to supply the 100-million-plus people aged 50 and over in this country,” Laurie Orlov, an analyst with Age In Place Technology, said in an interview. She estimates that this market is worth $2 billion now and will hit $20 billion by 2020. Semico Research puts the number higher, forecasting that the market for gear like remote health monitors, oximeters, glucose monitors, medication reminders, heart rate monitors, safety alert bracelets, etc. will hit $30 billion by 2017.

How big is big?

You want more evidence? Research released in October conducted by Oxford Economics for the AARP said that Americans over 50 spend $4.6 trillion annually, with the ripple effect of that spending hitting $7.1 trillion per year. These are very big numbers. If you have an elderly relative, sooner or later you’ll find out how important technology can be in keeping that person involved and connected with the outside world — perhaps even enabling her to “age in place” as opposed to moving into an assisted-care facility or senior home.

One early mover in this field is Lively, which provides a home monitoring service pairing sensors with a wireless hub. It discretely notes when Grandma leaves the bedroom, opens the fridge or her pill bottle, etc., and alerts family or health professionals if, say, she doesn’t leave the bedroom for 10 hours or fails to take her pill (or at least open the bottle). A keyfob sensor can track when and if the house or car keys are used. Competitors include BeClose and GrandCare.

There is a tradeoff here. Nobody wants to feel surveilled, but if the choice comes down to monitoring — with appropriate privacy measures in place — or having to leave the home, most seniors will opt to stay and be monitored.


Tech for senior citizens: Keep it simple

The key to success will be ease of installation and use, which is why Ovum Research analyst Mike Sapien said he hopes the drop-dead simple Fitbit/Jawbone model can be adapted for new purposes. A pill bottle with an alarm on it may seem cool, but if a user is old enough, she might be on five or six different medications and have vision and hearing problems which could make an array of beeping bottles more a puzzle than a solution.

“This stuff has to be incredibly simple,” Sapien  said. Devices like Fitbit may not be able to fulfill all these functions but can certainly do more than count steps and log mileage. They are great because users put them on and forget about them. “They tell you via your computer when the battery is low. You don’t have to worry about starting an app when you go out, then hitting a button if something goes wrong,” he said.

Chad Jones, the LogMeIn(s logm) VP in charge of the company’s Xively internet of things business, agreed. The whole quantified-self category needs to be expanded from athletes and healthy young people to the geriatric population, he said. “There is no reason such devices can’t watch a person’s heart rate as they go through their day to see if there’s a spike that might indicate they’re off their meds,” he noted.

Lively CEO Iggy Fanlo sees wearable devices as an adjunct to his company’s home monitoring service. Within the next few months, Lively will add an accelerometer-equipped pendant that will report the wearer’s movement, including falls, back to the caregiver or family. “The problem with pendants now is that people often don’t push the button even if they should because they’re disoriented, unconscious or just embarrassed,” he said.  The accelerometer will detect that fall, but to avoid false positives, it will wait a “non-critical amount of time” to see if movement resumes before alerting help.

That product will compete with existing personal emergency response systems (PERS) like Lifeline and MedicAlert, which are adding capabilities — GPS-assisted map locations, for example — atop their standard emergency-call-buttons.

Great Call, which makes easy-to-use Jitterbug phones, is also a contender in this race, according to Orlov. The phones are designed with big displays and big buttons for the sight impaired and also come with additional services, like the opportunity to talk with a nurse or a doctor as part of the package.

As more device-savvy adults join the ranks of senior citizens, they will bring their skills with them, but there are still huge hurdles among what the MetLife Maturity Institute (now sadly defunct) used to call the “old-old.”  These are the oldest of the senior citizens — people in their 80s, 90s, early 100s, most of whom are not computer-literate. Many don’t even type. For that demographic, the notion of logging into something and remembering passwords, is beyond foreign. So vendors have a lot of work to do to make technology useable for these people.

While there is wiggle room in all these market-size estimates, there’s no doubt that there’s huge demand for technology that helps seniors stay in their homes as long as possible. Added bonus: there are two sets of prospective buyers. First, the seniors themselves, who may, as discussed, submit to monitoring if it means staying home. Second, are their guilt-riddled (and also aging) adult children, who may live far away and who want to keep their parents happy. Not a bad market at all.

For more on Lively, check out Fanlo’s appearance on Gigaom’s Internet of things podcast:


Disclosure: Fitbit is backed by True Ventures, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of Gigaom.

17 Responses to “Who will crack the code on tech for seniors?”

  1. Laura Mitchell

    The market is finally lending towards adoption of digital health/aging in place technologies. The true early innovators are the ones that were out there in 2004 and 2005, trying to educate the market on why technology is even necessary. I was (and still am) at GrandCare Systems in 2005, along with early innovators such as Presto, QuietCare (now part of Care Innovations) and HealthSense. 2005 was the year that the whitehouse held its very first Conference on Aging with an “Imagine the future of technology Paviliion”, sponsored by CAST of LeadingAge.

    While I am incredibly excited that so many folks are coming into this industry and encouraging more investment and interest in digital health, I must give a shout out to the rest of the true early movers in the digital health space – – 5 years before the first ipad was even released (April 3, 2010). Remember our weekly industry aging/technology conference calls – designed to grow a space, not yet defined in 2008??

    Thanks for the article and I love reading all of the comments!!!
    Laura Mitchell
    VP Business Development & Founding Member
    GrandCare Systems

  2. Dan Pitkow

    Nice article, and I echo many of the comments. I disagree about Universal Design, however – “Specific Design” is needed for this segment. Further, way too much attention is focused on super techy solutions when basic daily activities are the issue. Its cool to monitor someones every move 24 hours a day, but this does not improve their quality of life. Like Presto, Flipper Remote is specifically designed for seniors #1 activity, TV watching. Some may judge this, and say they “shouldn’t” do it, but Nielsen says that seniors watch over 200 hours of TV a month, compared at about 135 for a 35 year old. Many are home bound, and the TV is their connection to the external world. Flipper Remote makes their life easier, and helps them retain independence on their #1 activity.

  3. Very recognizable. Although there are new and bright examples. Together with care organisations in Germany and patients we developed Obli: an internet based but very easy to use device for stimulating fluid intake and monitoring the drinking behavior. Separating basic and more difficult user tasks leads to great accessibility also for digital ignorants.
    The exception confirms the rule? I guess the big differentiator between the mentioned companies and the ‘bright examples’ is the focus on effectiveness; if you want your products to really work for elderly you need the courage to make certain design decisions that might exclude other (and bigger user groups). Although, appealing “design for all’ will works for the youngsters as well. Obli is specially made for older people, but not exclusively.

  4. Wayne Caswell

    I’m happy you referenced Laurie Orlov since she and I share the same concern about misleading market research that ignores the “real seniors.” By saying Americans over 50 spend trillions and implying that “seniors” represent a huge market opportunity, the article misleads product developers and others when we should instead help them understand differences between the new seniors (10,000 per day turning 65) and the real seniors (75+ & 85+).

    The real seniors didn’t grow up with PCs or use them at work, so there’s a huge drop-off in tech adoption there; and while they could benefit from tech solutions, they aren’t going online to learn about them. In fact most don’t own a PC, tablet or smartphone or have ever used the Internet. So target this demographic through their adult children and family caregivers.

    Also, design products that are usable by everyone regardless of age or ability using Universal Design principles, because those real seniors don’t want products that scream “I’m old and frail.” The Apple iPad is one of my favorite devices for real seniors, given its extreme ease of use, accessibility features, and ability to get updates over cellular connections (if properly configured), thus eliminating the need for a home PC and Wi-Fi network. I much prefer the iPad and its army app developers over more proprietary solutions from BeClose & GrandCare.

  5. Good comments and article. Many technology activity events for and by seniors, bet they are not done together so we have to examine many different parts by many different organizations and researchers.It is important that persons involved communicate to a blog, news source or professinal organization so this information can be shared;

    Gene Loeb, Ph.D.

  6. The aging population is a huge market destined to remain untapped due to Silicon Valley’s persistent contempt for anyone not in the young urban left-wing hipster class.

    Exhibit A: Apple’s iOS 7 upgrade. It is the visual equivalent of those 18kHz-ish ringtones designed so that teenagers and dogs can hear them, but adults can’t. In iOS 7, Apple took a stolid but well-understood UI, and deliberately changed it to make all the fonts ultra-skinny and pale, all the icons ‘flat’ and in similar colors to one another, and all the buttons hidden in plain sight as ordinary text on white background with no borders to help show where to press. The whole upgrade is a giant eff-you to anyone with 45-year-old eyes. Can an older person learn to use iOS 7? Sure, but with a painful transition as they struggle to find the settings that will render it usable again without putting it into full Ray Charles mode.

    Exhibit B, sadly enough, is this article. Nowhere in this article does it acknowledge the broad continuum of capabilities between the hale-and-hearty class and the nursing home class. But physical decline usually occurs slowly and in tiny increments over years — rarely all at once. So there is a far larger market for technology aimed at older people than merely a few apps so hipsters can monitor their drooling grandparents from afar.

    But the market needs to understand that while the aging demographic wants the conveniences technology can provide, it is also less patient with artist bullshit. They want products that just work for them instead of making them work to prove they’re ‘cool’ enough to have it.

    • as the article states, there are younger “old” people with computer skills but many “old old” people who not only don’t know computers but can’t type. It’s a huge and varied demographic

      • MySeniorPortal

        It is interesting that in the world of marketing demographics the markets are defined in very narrow bands, such as 18 – 24, etc., but once the market demographic hits 50, it covers a well mixed group which spans about 40 – 50 years, or more.

        I would love to hear marketers start to focus on narrower bands of this demographic, as they are clearly distinct in many ways.

  7. Are you familiar with the simplest of all senior socialization products/services: Presto ( Our company was funded by Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers back in 2004 and launched at Walt Mossberg’s D5 conference in 2006. Presto is often overlooked because it is a paper printout-based system, but the genius of its inventors was that it didn’t require any learning or “adoption” by the user or their family and friends. Since then, Presto has helped a half-million family members stay closer to their elder loved ones. I am Presto’s CEO but was not the founder/inventor. I joined the company when I saw the impact it was having on people’s lives. You can see that in all the five-star reviews on Amazon. I don’t mean to shill on your blog, but for the 43% of Americans 65+ who don’t have broadband (Pew survey) and the 70% of people 70+ who have “no interest” in laptops, smartphones, e-readers or tablets (Link-Age survey) a simpler paper option that does not require a computer or Internet connection is an elegant solution, and one that has been serving this market for eight years. — Peter Radsliff, CEO, Presto Services.

  8. K. McPhillips

    Spot on! There’s incredible need in the >50 population, and it’s a need that is only going to grow and evolve. In addition to the simplicity of the technology and devices, the vendors who decide to capitalize on the opportunity need to think about what makes for “success” in the eyes of the buyer/user. More and more it’s about a positive experience from purchase to refresh vs. features and functionality. A continuous service experience (what folks at PlumChoice like to call the “Internet of Services”) is essential for not just acquiring, but also keeping customers, especially those on the “gray zone.”

    Whether ownership is of two devices or a whole host of them, some of which are mobile or can be managed via a smart mobile device, all that “stuff” and the services from your ISP need to interconnect, work together when and where expected, and do so as seamlessly as possible for the consumer to consider it a positive experience.

    That takes a completely different kind of support. And there are few companies purpose built or affiliated appropriately to deliver it.

    • MySeniorPortal

      Absolutely agree. It has always amazed me how the marketing gurus have continued to focus on the younger demographic while so much buying power and discretionary income is in the hands of the senior population.

      In doing the research prior to the launch of our website in 2010 I was just amazed at the overlooked niche market.

  9. El Barto

    Personally for school I have done research about the aging population and how is already changing. They have the money while the younger people while having some monetary power, they do not hold as much as the 50+ population.

    Who will benefit the most? Apple since they are the easiest to use and have on hands support at their stores. You ain’t dealing with kids who follow trends and celebrities,you are dealing with educated people who have money to spend and will do their research before they do.