Elderly

Older people are adopting 21st Century technology like smartphones at increasing rates, research shows.

QUINN DOMBROWSKI (CC-BY-SA)

When it comes to how they serve aging populations, Erin Courtenay believes the tech world tends to come up short.

Startups disproportionately attract the young and the hip, often leading to tech that’s overtly millennial-centric, according to the communications director for Earthling Interactive, a local tech firm. “They leave aging populations out of the conversation,” she said.

Other companies look at the elderly as “an opportunity to make dollars, but (don't) really think about the needs of a population,” said Courtenay.

Courtenay is among a group of Madisonians spearheading a volunteer effort to change that. They've created Aging2.0 Madison, a local chapter of a national network that hopes to build an unofficial network of “aging advocates” and entrepreneurial leaders in the area. The goal will be to spark new ideas for engaging the elderly as both consumers and beneficiaries of tech.

“Every time the spark gets lit, you can see that people get excited. They see it makes a lot of sense to start moving in this area,” said Courtenay.

Proponents of the “silvertech” movement point out that the elderly is because they’re adopting 21st Century technology at increasing rates. Recent Pew research showed that 42 percent of senior citizens now use smartphones. A 2016 survey by the AARP reported that 43 percent of those over 60 years old play video games.

Some technological innovations in recent years have focused on older people. Robotic seals that can wriggle, squeak and cuddle have made headlines for the therapeutic effect they’ve had on residents in elder care facilities. Proponents of autonomous vehicles have long argued that self-driving cars could have the biggest impact on people like the elderly who otherwise have a tough time getting around.

Courtenay said there have been other exciting innovations as well, particularly in the realm of elder care.

“It’s not just heart monitors and things like that. It’s transportation apps that help get Grandma to a birthday party, or to an appointment,” she said.

Courtenay said she and her colleagues at Earthling Interactive first became aware of the “silvertech” movement after the team developed tools for clients like a patient-tracking tools at skilled nursing homes, and an app that assess the risk of falls in a home.

Others in the Madison area are also working on the silvertech front. Researchers at the Center for Aging and Research Education with the University of Wisconsin-Madison, for example, are working on a web tool for family caregivers.

But Courtenay said that there’s a long way to go in Madison: On the whole, not many people in town are working on tech tools for the elderly. The new Aging2.0 group hopes to challenge local entrepreneurs and tech leaders to change that dynamic.

Aging2.0 operates nationally as a “global network of innovators” trying to come up with entrepreneurial ways to improve the lives of the elderly. It has 58 chapters in locations from Grand Rapids, Michigan to Lima, Peru.

Courtenay said that while activity in Madison is slim, she thinks the city is poised for success. It has already seen an explosion in health care tech activity, in part thanks to the growth of Epic Systems. Plus, she said that the city has a unique population that could help: “aging advocates” who are on board with Aging2.0’s mission, along with a population of well-informed, engaged senior citizens.

“Our seniors are a savvy community, really well-educated folks that are going to give excellent feedback,” she said.

Madison’s new chapter had its kickoff event during Forward Festival, the annual tech-centric week of panels, startup competitions and networking events in Madison. Later this year, the group plans to hold its second event: A silvertech product pitching competition.

Erik Lorenzsonn is the Capital Times' tech and culture reporter. He joined the team in 2016, after having served as an online editor for Wisconsin Public Radio and having written for publications like The Progressive Magazine and The Poughkeepsie Journal.