Since 2020, the world has been turned upside down by the COVID-19 pandemic. But 2020 also marked another milestone that will change our world: The number of people 65 and older outnumbered children under age 5 for the first time in history. And this is just the beginning.
Over the next two decades, the number of people age 65 and older will nearly double to more than 72 million — or 1 in 5 Americans. And most 65-year-olds today will live into their 90s. Some researchers believe that the first person who will ever live to 150 is alive today.
Aging is about much more than demographics. More and more, people are embracing age as a period of continued growth.
Instead of seeing only retirees, we’re beginning to see a new type of experienced, accomplished workforce. Instead of seeing older people as a drain on society, we’re witnessing an exploding consumer market that is bolstering the economy. And instead of seeing a growing pool of dependents, we’re seeing the growth of intergenerational communities with new and different strengths.
However, many of the products and services and systems that support us as we age (e.g., those pertaining to living independently, health care, retirement planning, and caregiving) were designed for a 20th-century lifestyle and don’t adequately support the way we live today, nor do they reflect the advances in technology that allow us to live better as we grow older.
What can business and social organizations do not only to help people achieve and afford enriching lives but also to help them thrive as they age? How can they create solutions that help people live better throughout their lives? The answer, as with so many of the profound challenges our society faces, is innovation. But unless businesses and organizations overcome outdated attitudes and stereotypes about aging, they may miss out on a multitude of opportunities to create innovative products and services for a growing and influential market segment.
They can focus on three areas — health, wealth, and self. Health refers to innovating solutions that empower us to take better care of ourselves and our loved ones and to have access to affordable, high-quality care that enables longer, healthier lives. Wealth is about creating solutions that empower us to earn, save, manage, and protect financial resources to support longer lifespans. And self is about empowering people to enjoy their longer lifespans and live fulfilling and satisfying lives, by creating opportunities for them to build and maintain social connections and engage with their communities and the broader world.
Crucially, although a given product or company might fit into just one of these categories, all three are inextricably interconnected. They factor fully into how people think about their futures — where they’re going to live, how they’re going to get around, how they’re going to stay connected to their friends and family, how they’re going to get health care and long-term care when they need it, how they’re going to make their money last.
That’s why collaboration among people and organizations who look beyond the stereotypes and apply an interdisciplinary approach to solutions is so important. This type of communication across sectors can lead to solutions that one organization or company may not create on its own. For example, it leads to technological advances that bring smart technologies into the home to assist individuals in living independently longer in those homes, monitoring and managing their daily activities, and keeping them connected to family and friends to avoid becoming isolated. It leads to more imaginative uses of digital technology for self-care — wearables for monitoring and tracking vital signs, online support communities, health care navigators or care coordinators to help manage older adults’ health care and facilitate long-distance caregiving. And it leads communities to develop comprehensive strategies to change their physical infrastructure and the way they deliver services, including housing and transportation services, to make communities more livable and age-friendly.
At AARP, we created AARP Innovation Labs to help shape the future of aging, promote healthy aging, support family caregivers, and help older Americans build financial resilience and combat social isolation. Through our own research and collaborations with technology companies, startups, and entrepreneurs, we created products such as Alcove VR and HomeFit AR to foster virtual reality family connections and enable age-ready home improvements, respectively, to help people to live better as they age.
Innovation will be the key to helping people take advantage of generally longer and healthier lives in the coming years and decades. Empowering innovators and, just as crucially, establishing a medium where they can communicate with one another and their consumers, is critical to ensuring that this inventive energy truly makes a difference in helping people live better as they age.
We also match them with testbeds — businesses and organizations that want to provide an environment to help startups test solutions — where they have the opportunity to translate data into actionable insights in order to determine product efficacy, usability, or market fit for fostering solutions to aging issues including caregiving, chronic illness management, social isolation, housing, and more. For example, the Massachusetts eHealth Institute supports pilots and clinical trials at its Digital Health Sandbox Network sites, allowing companies focused on digital health to test-validate their solutions in the real world and develop the evidence they need to accelerate growth.
Innovation will be the key to helping people take advantage of generally longer and healthier lives in the coming years and decades. Empowering innovators, and, just as crucially, establishing a medium where they can communicate with one another, and their consumers, is critical to ensuring that this inventive energy truly makes a difference in helping people live better as they age.
Jo Ann Jenkins is CEO of AARP.