Who will crack the code on tech for seniors?

Photo from Pond5/Ken Tannenbaum

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.

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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 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:

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

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