The challenge to technology and business

Independence for the elderly: the challenge to technology and business

William Tenhoor

The growing number of older persons in our society is generally well recognized. Less well recognized or understood, however, are the implications of this growth. Today one in nine Americans is 65 or older and by the year 2030, this proportion will have risen to one in four. The increasing number of older Americans will challenge not only those who work directly with the elderly, but members of the technological and business communities as well if we are to meet the elderly’s need and desire for independence.

The Physiology of Aging and the Capacity for Independence

As we age, we experience varying degrees of diminished physical capacity. For example, our joints do not move as smoothly, grip strength declines, auditory and visual abilities diminish, and our ability to clearly descriminate tastes and smells is altered. These changes begin after age 30 and slowly impose limits on our ability to respond to physiological demands, and ultimately to care for ourselves.

Knauser, Bakar, Lynch, and Lawrence have grouped physiological limitations into nine categories including: (1) vision, (2) hearing, (3) speech, (4) dietary needs, (5) manual dexterity, (6) upper body strength, (7) lower body strength, (8) mobility, and (9) physical and psychological comfort.

The degree of physiological loss and the presence or absence of disease are important considerations when designing and developing products and devices that may be of assistance to older people. It also is important to consider the effects of such losses or limits on an older person’s abilities to perform the tasks of daily living. Obviously, the degree of help needed by an older person varies depending on the type and severity of the condition.

In order to learn more about the needs of older persons for new technologies that could help them to be independent and self-sufficient, the Administration on Aging funded Martech Associates, Inc. of Portland, Oregon to investigate this question. Martech, through a subcontract with the Gallup Organization, conducted a nationwide survey of 1,500 noninstitutionalized persons 55 and over to determine the market need and demand for new technologies and products.

The older people in the survey identified 16 problem areas of daily living. The first eleven were identified as problems to some degree by most respondents:

1. Opening medicine packages

2. Reading product labels

3. Reaching high things

4. Fastening buttons, snaps, or zippers

5. Vacuuming or dusting

6. Going up and down stairs

7. cleaning bathtubs and sinks

8. Washing and waxing floors

9. Putting clothes on over one’s head

10. Putting on shoes, socks, or stockings

11. Carrying purchases home

12. Using tools

13. If something happened at home, no one would know

14. Using the shower or bathrub

15. Typing shoe laces, bows, and neckties

16. Moving around the house without slipping or falling

While people of all ages contend with some or all of these problems at one time or another, older people tend to experience them with greater frequency and intensity. This, coupled with the fact that the older population is growing rapidly, suggests that we face a serious challenge in the near future especially to our supportive and health care systems’ ability to respond to the needs of the frail elderly. New products that enhance an older person’s independence are one answer to this problem.

Our Growing Older Population

During the next half century, the number of persons 60 and older will more than double from 39 to 82 million persons. Today older persons constitute 16 percent of the Nation’s population; by 2030 they will represent 27 percent. The fastest growing segment of the older population is the over-85 group. Thus the elderly population is not only becoming larger, it is also growing older.

The number of older people living alone is also increasing. In 1960, 17 percent, or 3.9 million elderly lived alone; by 1982 this number had risen to 26 percent, or 9.4 million older people. This rate of increase is 2.5 times faster than one would predict from the growth in the older population alone. Those older people who most frequency live alone are women and the oldest of the old–the same groups that will be growing at the most rapid rate in the future.

Barring future high inflation or other economic changes that make it impractical, it appears that the trend toward living alone will continue. Although living alone is indicative of an older person’s capacity for self-sufficiency, it can also be a precarious and difficult arrangement for the older person who needs some help in order to remain independent. Technological advances and consumer products geared to meeting the needs of those older people who live alone, who are frail and who suffer from chronic and disabling conditions can increase both their safety and their ability to be self-sufficient, thus lessening the strain on community support systems and decreasing the need for institutionalization.

Meeting the Cost

While the cost of some “high tech” consumer products, such as sophisticated security systems, may be out of reach for many older people, there are many low-technology items that virtually all older people can afford, such as the modern adaptation of the old fashioned “reachers” originally used by store owners to reach products on high shelves. Today’s version is a lightweight product with rubberized grippers that can be of real assistance to those older people who have difficulty in using stools and ladders, to say nothing of eliminating the danger of falling. Other modifications of products which can benefit the older consumer include rubber-handled scissors, which make sewing easier, and high-rimmed plates, recently introduced by Wedgewood China.

Nevertheless, there are segments of the older population who cannot afford these “low tech” items, even though they foster independence and in many cases eliminate potential safety hazards that could result in hospitalization or even institutionalization. It may be far less costly for public agencies to act on behalf of older persons to ensure that they obtain necessary products and devices.

A case in point is the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s “Home Safety Checklist for Older Consumers.” This checklist lists steps that older people can take to reduce the likelihood of accidents in their homes as well as devices that can help to eliminate accidents, such as adding grab bars in bathtubs. But if the older person lacks the money for the grab bar and cannot afford to have it installed, agencies that serve and work on behalf of the aged may have to take active steps to ensure that the older person obtains these products.

A situation like the one described above took place at one of the demonstration sites where the Consumer Product Safety commision was testing its Checklist. In this instance, the City of Philadelphia paid to have the safety improvements made in the homes of those older people who could not afford the improvements.

At a higher level of cost and sophistication are products such as home banking, computerized shopping, and emergency and security systems. The May 1983 issue of Aging magazine contains an article on technology which describes many other high technology products which are now available or will be in the not too distant future.

In the area of medical and rehabilitation devices, it is worth noting the availability of the information system known as Able Data. This is a computerized program, containing thousands of entries, which enables the user to search for devices that meet the rehabilitative and daily living needs of persons with disabilities.

Reaching the Mature Market

Several recent articles in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal attest to the growing public recognition and level of interest in reaching the older consumer. The business community is becoming increasingly aware of the mature market and with good reason.

Older people now have more money on a pr capita basis and more discretionary income than any other age group. Households headed by persons in the 55-64 age group have a per capita income of $11,263, which is 26 percent higher than the national average. Taken as a whole, the over 55 group has almost twice the discretionary spending power of those under 35. In addition, about seven of every ten elderly households own their own homes and 85 percent are mortage free. Equity in the homes of those over 65 is estimated at $600 billion.

Obviously, any group with such significant buying power is worthy of attention both by those who design and modify products for specific population groups as well as by those who advertise and sell them.

Marketing approaches that portray older persons as competent, confident, active, and useful individuals seem to be the most effective in reaching older adults. The product catalog “Comfortably Yours” illustrates a positive approach to marketing assistive products. Positive images of older persons have also been used in marketing personal and recreational products such as the Eastern Airlines yearly flat fare rate for travelers 65 and over, Johnson & Johnson’s Affinity Shampoo for older persons, Levi Strauss & Co.’s Action Wear Slacks, and Germaine Monteil’s skin care products for older women.

Anyone who wants to reach older people with product information, whether they are social service providers, advertisers, business people, or others, should provide a realistic but positive image of the product’s value. Older consumers are not likely to respond to approaches that equate age with illness and infirmity. At the same time, older persons will not be deceived by illusory or false claims. A positive approach focuses on the mature interests and lifestyle of older persons and recognizes that they are not a monolithic group. Most older persons are independent, active, and contributing members of society who have a variety of interests and needs.

Fabian Linden, Director of Consumer Research at the Conference Board, an independent research organization supported by business, calls the youthful focus of advertisers and manufacturers “a gigantic error.” Yet many companies continue to avoid identification with older persons for fear of losing they younger consumer. More enlightened companies are beginning to recognize the strength and potential of the older population as consumers. Relative to the younger market, companies are also recognizing that younger persons often make major purchases, such as apppliances, with the advice or subsidies from older persons.

Getting a broad range of people–those in the business community responsible for product development and marketing, gerontologists, other professionals, and older consumers themselves–to change their cultural biases about the aging experience is a slow process, and one that will require a concerted effort by everyone with a vested interest.

AoA’s Initiatives

The Administration on Aging has joined in the effort to ensure that new technological advances and products benefit older Americans by seeking to inform those in the business and academic community of the needs and potential of the senior market. In addition to the Gallup survey mentioned earlier. AoA has helped to support Chatauqua Northwest’s Senior World’s Fair. The Fair, held last year, highlighted the achievements of active older persons and many of the products and services designed to meet their needs. The Faiar also highlighted the potential of the older consumer market and helped business to tap into and formulate marketing strategies for the 55 and over group.

AoA has also worked with the Council of Better Business Bureaus to focus on the product needs of older consumers in a forum entitled. “The Older Consumer: Today’s Marketplace Challenge.” The forum’s success highlighted the important benefits that can result from a collaborative relationship between the aging network and business, trade, and professional associations.

AoA has also signed a cooperative agreement with the Union Carbide Retireee Service Corps. Under this agreement the company’s retired scientists, engineers, and business people volunteer their time to develop partnerships between the aging network and the private sector to identify existing products and adapt them for use by older consumers. One of the most highly publicized finds was a model bathroom developed at the University of Wisconsin.

In the area of high technology, AoA is collaborating with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Institute on Aging, the National Institute of Handicapped Research, and the Veterans Administration to apply NASA aerospace technology to the product needs of older persons. A key element in this and other NASA technology transfer projects is early involvement of manufacturers who will produce and market the products that are developed.

Finally, AoA is also supporting a number of training grants that will prepare professionals to apply gerontological knowledge to their respective fields. For instance, a project with the American Institute of Architects is developing a training program to improve the ability of practicing architects to meet the environmental design needs of older persons. At Syracuse University, the “New Directions in Gerontology Education” project provides training to managers in business and industry and establishes a State Agency advisor to New York’s scientists and engineers on aging issues. Under another project funded by AoA, the Western Gerontological Society will provide gerontological education to scientists and engineers to stimulate their interest in the product needs of older persons. The project entitled, “Education in Aging for Scientists and Engineers” is being designed for replication by others.

What States Can Do

Pennsylvania is one State that has been interested in product development and marketing for older consumers and has scored a number of important achievements in this area. The Pennsylvania Department on Aging has focused on making older consumers and service providers aware of products that promote independent living. As the State Aging Network’s activities have become more visible, the interest of the business community both at the local and national levels has also grown.

The Department of Aging has undertaken several activities to assist older consumers. It has developed a Catalog of Products and Services to Enhance the Independence of the elderly which is used primary by service providers. The Catalog identifies devices that can compensate for many of the physiological changes that accompany aging. It is also used to educate older persons, product manufacturers and the general public about the possibilities of adapting products to the changing needs of older persons. Another publication entitled New Horizons: Pennsylvania Department of Aging Handbook of Independent Living was developed specifically as a resource for older persons. It describes existing products and services in such areas as money matters, legal services, living alternatives, and safety.

In May 1984 the Department sponsored a conference entitled “Emerging Market: Mature Consumers.” The meeting included members of the aging network, older persons, and members of the business community. The meeting made business representatives more aware of the needs of older persons and made older persons more aware of new and existing products that could meet their needs.


Meeting the needs of older consumers in ways that will enhance their ability to be independent presents a challenge not only to those who invent and design new products and living environments but to those who manufacture, advertise, and market them as well as. Finally it challenges those in the field of gerontology to interact with members of the technological and business communities on behalf of older people. Making living and product environments responsive to the needs of older americans is just as important as providing direct services of high quality.

We believe that older people should have the same range of product choices available to them that other age groups enjoy, because in our view this approach will greatly assist the majority of older Americans to maintain their independence.

COPYRIGHT 1985 U.S. Government Printing Office

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group