Sunday, February 6, 2011

Aging population becomes big business

From intro to a story by Natasha Singer in The NY Times:

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- It's not easy being gray.

For the first time ever, getting out of a car is no picnic. My back is hunched. And I’m holding on to handrails as I lurch upstairs.

I’m 45. But I feel decades older because I’m wearing an Age Gain Now Empathy System, developed by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Agnes, they call it.

At first glance, it may look like a mere souped-up jumpsuit. A helmet, attached by cords to a pelvic harness, cramps my neck and spine. Yellow-paned goggles muddy my vision. Plastic bands, running from the harness to each arm, clip my wingspan. Compression knee bands discourage bending. Plastic shoes, with uneven Styrofoam pads for soles, throw off my center of gravity. Layers of surgical gloves make me all thumbs.

The age-empathy suit comes from the M.I.T. AgeLab, where researchers designed Agnes to help product designers and marketers better understand older adults and create innovative products for them. Many industries have traditionally shied away from openly marketing to people 65 and older, viewing them as an unfashionable demographic group that might doom their product with young and hip spenders. But now that Americans are living longer and more actively, a number of companies are recognizing the staying power of the mature market.

“Aging is a multidisciplinary phenomenon, and it requires new tools to look at,” Joseph F. Coughlin, director of AgeLab, tells me, encumbered and fatigued after trying to conduct a round of interviews while wearing Agnes. Viewed through yellow goggles, the bright colors of Professor Coughlin’s bow tie appear dim. “Agnes is one of those tools,” he says.

AgeLab, like a handful of other research centers at universities and companies around the country, develops technologies to help older adults maintain their health, independence and quality of life. Companies come here to understand their target audience or to have their products, policies and services studied.

Often, visitors learn hard truths at AgeLab: many older adults don’t like products, like big-button phones, that telegraph agedness. “The reality is such that you can’t build an old man’s product, because a young man won’t buy it and an old man won’t buy it,” Professor Coughlin says.

The idea is to help companies design and sell age-friendly products — with customizable font size, say, or sound speed — much the way they did with environmentally friendly products. That means offering enticing features and packaging to appeal to a certain demographic without alienating other consumer groups. Baked potato chips are just one example of products that appeal to everybody but skew toward older people. Toothpastes that promise whitening or gum health are another.

Researchers at AgeLab are studying the stress levels of older adults who operate a hands-free parallel-parking system developed by Ford Motor. Although this ultrasonic-assisted system may make backing up easier for older adults who can’t turn their necks to the same degree they once did, the car’s features — like blind-spot detection and a voice-activated audio system — are intended to appeal to all drivers who enjoy smart technology.

“With any luck, if I am successful,” Professor Coughlin says, “retailers won’t know they are putting things on the shelves for older adults.”

The first of about 76 million baby boomers in the United States turned 65 in January. They are looking forward to a life expectancy that is higher than that of any previous generation.

The number of people 65 and older is expected to more than double worldwide, to about 1.5 billion by 2050 from 523 million last year, according to estimates from the United Nations. That means people 65 and over will soon outnumber children under 5 for the first time ever. As a consequence, many people may have to defer their retirement — or never entirely retire — in order to maintain sustainable incomes.

Many economists view such an exploding population of seventy- and eighty-somethings not as an asset, but as a looming budget crisis. After all, by one estimate, treating dementia worldwide already costs more than $600 billion annually.

“No other force is likely to shape the future of national economic health, public finances and policy making,” analysts at Standard & Poor’s wrote in a recent report, “as the irreversible rate at which the world’s population is aging.”

The S.&P. analysis, called “Global Aging 2010,” warns that many countries are not prepared to cover the pension and health care costs of so many additional retirees; if those governments do not radically alter their age-related spending policies in the next few decades, the report said, national debts will grow to rival — or even more than double — gross domestic product.

But longevity-focused researchers including Professor Coughlin, whose blog is called Disruptive Demographics, are betting that baby boomers, unlike generations past, will not go gentle into the good night of long-term care. In fact, a few research groups at institutions like Oregon Health & Science University, M.I.T. and Stanford, along with foundations and the private sector, are devising policies and systems for an alternate scenario: older adults living independently at home for longer periods, whether that home is a private residence or a senior community.

Devices for I’ve-fallen-and-I-can’t-get-up catastrophes, they say, represent the old business of old age. The new business of old age involves technologies and services that promote wellness, mobility, autonomy and social connectivity. These include wireless pillboxes that transmit information about patients’ medication use, as well as new financial services, like “Second Acts” from Bank of America Merrill Lynch, that help people plan for longer lives and second careers.

Together, those kinds of products and services are already a multibillion-dollar market, industry analysts say. And if such innovations prove to promote health and independence, delaying entry into long-term care, the potential savings to the health care system could be even greater.

That’s the upbeat message that Eric Dishman, the global director of health innovation at Intel, has been trying to get across to policy makers and industry executives for more than a decade. A charismatic health policy wonk, Mr. Dishman has held audiences at TedMed conferences spellbound with his lecture on the subject, in which he carts around an old-school rotary telephone, a prop dramatizing the need to connect older adults and technology.

In his office in Beaverton, Ore., he demonstrates some prototypes, like a social networking system for senior housing centers, that older Americans are already testing. Often, he says, field studies of his gadgets result in “success catastrophes” — the devices prove so popular that testers and their families are loath to return them. The people testing the social network devices, for example, asked for extra models for off-campus friends.

“There is an enormous market opportunity to deliver technology and services that allow for wellness and prevention and lifestyle enhancement,” he says. “Whichever countries or companies are at the forefront of that are going to own the category.”

Industry is beginning to hear his message. Last month, a group including Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson and Aegon said it had formed the Global Coalition on Aging, to help governments and industries better handle the age boom. “Companies are starting to think about how they can be age friendly much the same way they have been thinking about how they could be environmentally friendly over the last couple of decades,” says Andy Sieg, the head of retirement services at Bank of America.

The Mirabella, a new $130 million high-rise in the South Waterfront section of Portland, Ore., may be the greenest luxury retirement community in the nation.

The building has solar-heated hot water, a garage where valets stack cars in racks atop one another, sensors that turn off the lights when stairways are empty and platinum certification from Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, the group that sets national benchmarks for sustainable building.

But never mind the free loaner Priuses in the garage. The Mirabella also aspires to be the grayest — by providing an opportunity to develop and test the latest home-health technology and design concepts for older adults.

The building’s architects, Ankrom Moisan Associated Architects, turned on its head the idea of putting retirees out to pasture. This urban high-rise, conveniently located next to Oregon Health and Science University, enables residents to stay as healthy, engaged and socially connected as possible, says Jeff Los, a principal in the firm.

“Historically, upscale senior housing has been a rural three-story entity spread over 30 acres,” he says. “This is a 30-story building on one acre with a streetcar stop at the front door.”