Last week NYT writer Paula Span introduced me to the term “silvertech” in her piece looking at the discrepancy between what developers are creating for the seniors market and what users will implement (To Reach Seniors, Tech Start-Ups Must First Relate to Them). This challenge is not limited to the silvertech market, startups frequently come up with brilliant ideas that are a poor fit for intended users. But there are unique barriers to entry when working with an aging population and a whole slew of misconceptions and stereotypes that can lead to poorly executed ideas (such as the misguided allure of continuous monitoring devices Span discusses in her article).
Successful developers will need to meet users at the intersection of individual needs: living arrangements that span the single-family home to assisted living spaces, and medical support ranging from in-home care to short-stay rehab facilities to long-term skilled nursing support. They also must be aware of the regulatory influence of a major governmental payor of senior care - the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS).
The issues facing seniors planning to age at home are well known, and most of the wayward products mentioned in Span’s article are a result of addressing concerns like fall prevention, sanitary care, health monitoring and interpersonal communications. Yet, as is true for any user group, the worries alone do not the individual make. Seniors aging in place are adults with a lifetime of experience, varying levels of capacity, and individual assistance requirements or caregiving arrangements. Successful silvertech needs to invest in user experience as much (or perhaps more) than apps for younger audiences like Millennials. As Span mentions in her article, the cell phone maker Jitterbug has been unusually successful because they put user experience at the forefront of their design strategy.
From home health care, to rehabilitation centers to nursing homes, the infrastructure that exists to aid both healthy and ailing seniors is a major component of the senior living landscape. These institutions are growing rapidly, but have been somewhat overlooked by the tech industry. Likewise, home health care agencies and care facilities may have limited experience incorporating technology into their care practices. Collaborating directly with these institutions will be a valuable path toward expanding the silvertech market. Sometimes the best products come directly from individuals with a deep background in these fields, such as Living Life Solutions, a fall prevention application that Earthling built for a team with over a hundred years collective experience in skilled nursing facility and home health care.
The entire field of senior care is in transition due to changes in how CMS pays for care. A new emphasis on avoiding unnecessary hospitalizations and reducing the length of nursing home stays for senior adults will drive the market for products and technology designed to keep individuals safe and healthy at home. Tech companies working to engage the senior care market will need to work closely with experts to understand, for example, how new Medicare payment structures will impact what products are needed and appropriate. Another Earthling partner, Align, has designed their lead product to serve facilities that will soon be grappling with expanded responsibility for reducing re-hospitalizations after seniors transition home from short term care.
Silvertech developers aren’t alone in their tendency to overlook the nuances of their user base, but the opportunity costs of doing so are quite high. Technology can be an enormous benefit to seniors and their caretakers, but it must be developed with the full picture in mind, not merely tackling a few well-known risk areas or ignoring the context in which it will be used.