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Let’s stop talking about technology ‘for’ older people

Age-tech is a hot topic at the moment. But what are the limitations of specialist products for older people?

Our Senior Innovation Manager, Jemma Mouland, explores the current interest in ‘age-tech’, arguing that we need to think much more inclusively about the kinds of products people want in later life.

There's no shortage of articles discussing the promise of technology in supporting our longer lives. The tech community and investors are becoming growingly attuned to this 'emerging market'. As our recent review of the ageing innovation and investment landscape highlighted, there's a huge range of organisations jumping on the 'age-tech' bandwagon.

A recent article in the Guardian entitled 'Tech assistance: the rush to design apps and services for senior citizens' caught my attention. A well-meaning and balanced piece, it also illuminated the many misconceptions and challenges that underlie the narrative around technology and ageing.

As the article wonderfully demonstrates, 'senior' is treated as synonymous with 'illness' and ‘disability’. On a weekly basis I come across new gadgets that can help me to manage my pills, support reminiscence, that monitor my home, my movements, my breathing.

Of course, we need innovations that help us to deal with the changes in our health and ability as we age. Often these products come with risks and limitations but they nevertheless stand to make a huge impact on the quality of our lives. Yet we also need to be careful that this isn't where our aspiration and imagination stops.

The Guardian article points to the venture-capital search for 'silver haired unicorns' (‘unicorns’ being start-ups worth over $1 billion – think AirBnb, WeWork and Deliveroo – and ‘silver-haired’ referring to products aimed at older people). But this search is likely to be a long one if we continue with current trends in ageing innovation. Specialist products – like home monitoring devices and digital healthcare assistants – are inherently limited: they tend to be crisis purchases, one-offs that people buy because they have to rather than because they want to. Do you look forward to the day you have these kinds of products in your home? Whilst they may be better than nothing or the current alternatives, they’re not really at the top of my list for how I'll spend some of my hard-earned pension.

Designers and developers need to push beyond stereotypes if they’re to truly unlock the opportunities of our longer lives.

Instead, I’d be much more interested in the products and services that feel relevant and useful to me as I age. Too often, big brands neglect or misinterpret the ‘older consumer’.  Around four in five (82%) of those aged over 55 say their favourite brand no longer understands them or what they need. How can we make sure that our workplaces, shops, our gyms, our nightclubs are offering something that we want and feel able to use irrespective of our age?

I also want things that will help me to make the most of my longer years by making sure they’re years of good health, financial security and connection. Currently, when we talk about business embracing the 'explosive growth' of the baby boomer market, there's a slightly sinister undertone. If we treat 'senior tech' or 'age tech' simply as a set of products and services to help people live well with dementia, or manage a decline in mobility, we're fundamentally embracing an explosion in the numbers of people living with these conditions. Surely, we can be more aspirational than that? What about the products and services that help us to prevent, or delay these conditions? Things that get us out and about, keep us active, keep us connected and engaged through work, volunteering or social activities?

Not only does the association of age with frailty lead to some very limited innovation, it also perpetuates stereotypes. A superb article by Joseph F Coughlin summarises it neatly: ‘Products designed for older people reinforce a bogus image of them as passive and feeble.’ Designers and developers need to push beyond these stereotypes if they’re to truly unlock the opportunities of our longer lives. After all, who is this ‘older person’ we’re talking about? Age does not define us, and it certainly does not turn us into a homogenous consumer blob.

So how about we throw aside the idea of ‘technology for older people’ altogether. Rather than trying to create a limited specialist market of products and services, let’s focus on how we can develop and deliver products and services that help us all to lead the fulfilling, healthy longer lives we aspire to. This means designing with people in later life to develop a wider range of more inclusive, attractive products and services that work for everyone, irrespective of age or ability.

Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF): Healthy ageing innovation and investment in the UK

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Jemma Mouland
Senior Innovation & Change Manager