What happens when you develop a product for something really important that people would prefer to ignore? That’s the challenge facing Suelin Chen and other entrepreneurs like her who want to make it easier for baby boomers to deal with the prospect of death.
Cake, the Boston startup Chen cofounded, has developed a website designed to help users navigate the thicket of legal documents and health care proxies associated with end-of-life planning. It also lets them assemble music playlists for their funerals and even choose whether to have a Facebook page deleted or converted to a memorial after they’ve stopped logging on.
The small company is just one of many similar businesses scrambling to tap into the huge boomer market. Others include Willing, Grace, Everplan, Vynca, and MyDirectives. To succeed, the startups will have to clear a formidable marketing hurdle: Many potential customers want to live forever, or at least for a long, long time. Getting their “affairs in order” is something they would rather put off indefinitely.
“Thinking about mortality is very difficult,” Chen said. “It feels overwhelming. Everybody knows they need this, but they have a million other things they have to do.”
Chen won’t reveal how many customers her two-year-old company has signed up, but she says there is growing demand for the digital tools offered by Cake, which was named for the notion that planning for death should be a “piece of cake.”
Yet resistance to end-of-life planning is easy to find. At the Massachusetts office of AARP, less than a mile away from Cake’s cramped headquarters near South Station, the organization’s state director, Mike Festa, said he isn’t ready to give it much thought.
“It’s not top of my mind,” said Festa, 63, who has no plans to retire and feels like he has another 20 or 30 years of life ahead. “I’m not going to pull the trigger on that this soon.”
On those occasions when he does entertain thoughts of death, Festa said, he recalls his late father. “That takes me to a place of sadness,” he said. “I think it’s human nature to stay away from bad places. And it’s a bad place to think I’m not going to be around for my grandchildren. So why go there?”
Roslindale resident Bill Allan, 76, a retired computer programmer and community activist, said he and his wife, Mary Lou Maloney, 72, recently started considering end-of-life planning, but he concedes that they probably should have done so sooner. “It didn’t seem urgent,” he said. “I thought, nobody’s going to die, nobody’s going to get sick. If I think about it, it’s going to happen faster.”
The push for people to better prepare for death also collides with a growing anti-aging movement that encompasses everyone from biotech entrepreneurs developing drugs to boost longevity, to Silicon Valley technology gurus seeking to make death optional.
“I see a group of people who are trying to cheat the Grim Reaper,” said MIT professor Lenny Guarente, 65, chief scientist at Elysium Health, a startup working to identify naturally occurring compounds — such as an antioxidant found in blueberries — that will help people live longer. “My own principal goal is to keep people healthy for as long as possible to forestall disease and decline.”
When it comes to end-of-life planning software, Guarente said, “I haven’t explored the technology yet. I’ve been in extremely good health until very recently when I had a stupid skiing accident. . . . But I can wait a while. When you’re in the pink, you feel like there’s plenty of time later to think about the latest and greatest in end-of-life planning.”
Cake’s other cofounder, palliative care doctor Mark Zhang, isn’t surprised by the reluctance. His aim is to have the company’s product there for people when they are ready to use it. Zhang, 34, met Chen, a 36-year-old engineer, at the MIT Hacking Medicine conference in 2015. Together, they hatched the idea for Cake, which was the winning project in the conference’s “Grand Hack” competition.
Zhang takes a decidedly soft-sell approach to organizing for death. “We want to lower the barrier and make a hard subject easier to approach,” he said. “There are people who are going to say this is not for me. But we want to be the place you’re thinking about when you’re approaching these issues.”
Though they are both young, Cake’s founders have already picked their funeral playlists. On the company’s website, Chen’s includes Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Islands in the Stream” by Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers, while Zhang prefers “Blast Off!” by Weezer.
Signing up to use Cake is free. The company makes its money from partners, such as Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, which typically haven’t offered such planning services. The companies license customized versions of Cake’s software for use on their own websites, making it available to patients and members.
Some boomers aren’t shying away from death planning. Peggy Li, a 63-year-old computer scientist from Arcadia, Calif., is an early adopter of Cake. Li said she signed up partly because she has seen death and dying up close. She has already lost her parents and father-in-law, and cares for her mother-in-law, who has Alzheimer’s. “We have friends who have died due to accidents or illness,” she said. “As Chinese, there’s a taboo about talking about death. But everybody dies.”
While their niches and business models vary, startups using new technology to focus on death planning offer services that can complement or compete with traditional planning counselors — ranging from lawyers and medical personnel to funeral directors, chaplains, and other spiritual leaders.
The market for digital tools for end-of-life planning currently totals less than $100 million in annual sales in the United States, estimates Stephanie Nieman, a principal at investment firm SJF Ventures in Durham, N.C. But it could mushroom into a $1 billion market in the coming decade, she said, if companies can overcome the resistance of potential users.
“It’s difficult to monetize something that people don’t want to do,” Nieman said.
Harriet Warshaw, executive director of the Conversation Project, said she expects more people will begin gravitating to end-of-life software because “we live in a digital world.”
A national survey by the Conversation Project — a Boston-based nonprofit that urges family members to “have the talk” about death — found that many older people are afraid of upsetting their children with talk of their deaths, while children fear their parents will misinterpret their attempts to broach the subject.
“Ninety percent of people want to have these conversations, and only 30 percent are having them,” Warshaw said. “The boomer women are our sweet spot. They’re the ones who are initiating these conversations for the most part.”
Phyllis Beedle, 77, who’s attended end-of-life planning forums at her church, agrees that women are more comfortable with transition. Drawing on experiences from her career as a real estate agent in Winchester, she said, “Men are generally resistant to things like this. When it comes time to downsize, it’s the men who want to stay in the house and the women who are open to going into a condo or an apartment.”
Retired historian Harold Burstyn, 87, a Boston native, said he and his wife, Joan, 88, are packing up their belongings at their home in Syracuse, N.Y., and moving to a retirement community near their daughter in Madison, Wis., though they are keeping their summer home in Woods Hole on Cape Cod. Burstyn said he has already prepared many important documents, such as a will and a health care proxy, but has stopped short of planning his funeral.
“I’m not going to be around, so what do I care?” he said. “I have absolutely no interest in binding my heirs to anything. They’re the ones who are going to be there, so they can decide.”