Keren Etkin, author of The AgeTech Revolution, talks aging in place and how it can benefit society at large.
As the world seeks to find answers to coping with our aging society, the market for innovative solutions to this challenge is growing rapidly – AgeTech is booming. But what are the barriers to AgeTech adoption and what benefits can it really deliver? Keren Etkin’s new book The AgeTech Revolution explores the changing face of aging in the 21st century, and how technology can help create a society that is more inclusive and supportive of older adults.
Longevity.Technology: As a public speaker and advisor for AgeTech start-ups, investors, and care providers, Etkin is well-qualified to comment on innovation around aging. She is the brains behind TheGerontechnologist.com, an online project that maps the global AgeTech ecosystem, and also founded AgeLabIL, an interdisciplinary R&D centre at Shenkar College in Tel Aviv. We caught up with Etkin to learn more about the book and what drove her to write it.
A gerontologist by training, Etkin started out in her career working in community services for older adults. The valuable experience also highlighted some of the limitations facing the care sector.
“We were doing some very impactful work, but it wasn’t scalable, so I became very interested in technologies that could potentially tackle some of the challenges that we were dealing with in the non-profit world in a scalable way,” she says. “I soon realised that we were actually surrounded by many wonderful start-ups developing amazing solutions for the different challenges of aging, which were part of this global ecosystem we now call AgeTech.”
The AgeTech Revolution
This initial interest compelled Etkin to bring some clarity to the AgeTech ecosystem and the wide range of approaches that comprise it. She began by creating TheGerontechnologist.com, and this work has now evolved into The AgeTech Revolution, a book that Etkin says was driven by two major trends.
“On one hand, we have the aging of the population – this unprecedented demographic shift that our world is going through, which has multiple implications on society and economy. And, on the other hand, there is the digital transformation that our society is going through – we now live in a world that is very different from the world our grandparents lived in.”
Unfortunately, says Etkin, many of today’s consumer technology products aren’t designed to accommodate the needs and wants of older adults.
“It’s a shame we don’t see more founders and investors looking at this space, because older adults represent not only a huge percentage of the population, but they also hold significant spending power,” she adds. “The longevity economy is estimated to be worth around $15 trillion, and tech spending among older adults is hundreds of billions of dollars annually. So, my main agenda in writing this book is to try and reach a wider audience with my message about how amazing this ecosystem is, and that I believe that any founder or investor who wants to get ahead of things and looking for a blue ocean opportunity should get into AgeTech.”
Etkin has intentionally written The AgeTech Revolution for a broad readership, making no assumptions on any prior knowledge of the sector that readers might have.
“Yes, this book is for founders and investors, but it’s also for older adults, family caregivers, and elder care professionals who don’t speak the tech jargon,” she says. “I hope they will find it insightful and educational and really gain a deeper understanding of what AgeTech is and how they can participate.”
What is AgeTech?
Fundamentally, says Etkin, the simple way of defining AgeTech is “digital technology that is designed with and for older adults with the purpose of tackling the challenges of aging.” And the “with and for” element of this definition is crucial.
“If you’re developing a software or hardware solution for a challenge of aging, and you’re not including older adults, or family caregivers, or elder care professionals, or whoever this solution is supposed to serve in your development process, then you’re going about it the wrong way,” says Etkin. “There is a misperception, some of it is rooted in ageism, that older adults should be treated as patients.
She explains that, while AgeTech has “some overlap” with sectors like digital health and accessibility technology, it also serves a different set of needs.
“There’s more to aging than looking for healthcare and accessibility solutions – and AgeTech also serves the social needs of older adults. For example, it serves the need to leave behind a legacy, the need to manage your financial wellness throughout retirement, the need to ‘unretire’ and to continue either being employed or start a business or return to education for lifelong learning.”
Aging in place: the holy grail
The concept of “aging in place” refers to older adults remaining independent longer, so that they can remain in their home environment as they age. And it’s fair to say that Etkin is a strong believer in its potential.
“I think the one thing that we could change that could have a significant effect on society is to democratise aging in place, which I believe is the holy grail that we should aspire to,” she says. “In many ways, I think AgeTech is really an umbrella term for any technology that enables aging in place. We need to abolish this notion that an age-segregated society is good for anyone, because it’s not. I think we’re seeing some progress in the right direction, but we need to see more.”
While technology is already helping in this area, Etkin believes that there is still a long way to go.
“I’m a great believer in robotics and automation as enablers for aging in place,” she says. “And I don’t mean to replace humans, but rather to extend human capabilities.
Unfortunately, caregivers today do a lot of manual tasks that they don’t necessarily have to do. If we create more automation solutions for the home, we give more older adults the ability to age in place, but we also allow human caregivers to do what humans do best, which is to provide companionship and social support.”
Lifelong learning is key
With the age of retirement creeping ever upwards, Etkin is also a huge advocate of technology that enables lifelong learning.
“The concept of retirement is almost obsolete,” she says. “There are many people who can’t afford to retire, because they simply don’t have enough saved to be retired for 20 or 30 years. But even people who can afford to retire don’t necessarily want to. Okay, you might not want to continue working full time and spending 14 hours a day in an office under neon lights, but, if you enjoy what you do, then you may still want to continue working in a way that works for you.”
Etkin believes that modern society needs to adapt to the idea of people continuing to work in some way, or to continuing to educate themselves for the rest of their lives.
“I don’t think we necessarily have a good way of doing it yet,” she says. “Yes, there are tonnes of online education platforms, and you can learn anything online these days, but there is a challenge of curation, and finding the right sort of the right education that you need at a particular moment, either in your life or in your career. And we must remember most older adults are not digital natives, so it might be harder for them to curate their own path to continued education.”
Design for older users
This last point is also why Etkin believes that one of the critical factors in AgeTech is to involve older adults in the development of new products and services.
“Before you write a single line of code you should do interviews with people – ask them about what they need, the problem they’re having, and how they’re trying to solve it. And you need to consider the fact that your older users might have difficulty seeing, hearing, and memorising things, so you should build your products with the best practices of usability and designing digital user interfaces for older adults.”
If society does AgeTech right, Etkin is hopeful of great things in the future.
“Our North Star should be that you can grow old in society, and still live your life to the fullest,” she says. “Because where we are at right now, as we grow older, our physical condition deteriorates and our ability to function independently in society is compromised.
“I believe technology can enable people to be more independent and live life more fully as they grow older, to some extent regardless of their physical or cognitive abilities. If we make a conscious effort as a society, as founders and as investors, to include older adults, then I think the world that we will get to grow old in could be much better than what the one we experience today.”