As a consultant, everyday I see the launch of products and services where marketing demographics have an age cut off at 45-50 years. In my 22 year career, I have hardly ever seen launches that specifically target and communicate to retirees or older people. Some of the reasons cited have been – older audiences are more inflexible to change, unlikely to try new products, too small a segment to be viable etc. But I disagree with these reasons. I think innovating for senior citizens is the need of the hour.
An oft-touted statistic is that we are a young country, with 50% of our population under the age of 35. But did you also know that the number of elderly people grew by 35% in the last decade? According to a 2016 report by the Ministry for Statistics and Programme Implementation, India has 103.9 million elderly people above age 60, about 8.5 per cent of the population.
This represents a sizeable and addressable demographic for all types of business innovation, both in the form of new products, and tweaking of existing products and services. What’s more, these innovations will also significantly benefit consumers above 45 years of age, who are already experiencing age-related changes and will appreciate thoughtful design that targets their needs. In fact, this post is largely inspired by tasks that I personally worry about doing as I grow older, as well as my observation of what older people struggle with.
When it comes to solutions for elderly, we often do not think beyond medical care. While we need to improve our medical infrastructure and costs, that’s not the purview of this post. Age brings many needs and challenges that have to be met, even while elderly people are active, mobile and independent (and often, even before they have retired)
Here are some areas that stand out as immediate low hanging fruit for marketers:
Harness AI for face and voice based smart assistance
Do you enjoy the task of keying in your 16 digit debit card number over a call? Or adding a payee to your account in online banking (where you have to memorize and type in the bank account number digit by digit, as security software will not let you copy it).
Or at a more basic level, have you been exasperated over an IVR menu, not knowing how to just press a button and reach customer service?
If you find these chores a pain, imagine asking a 60 year old to do them. Tasks like these can be highly stressful and it will benefit everyone, not just seniors, if we design simpler ways of doing them.
There is probably a reason that elderly people crowd banks and service centers – because technology solutions today fail to help them solve their problems.
On the other hand, elderly people really take to voice assistants like a duck to water. I have seen my parents use Amazon’s Alexa assistant far more optimally than I do. Alexa acts as a timer, a reminder service, a discovery service for their favorite old music and saves them getting up to turn off lights. On a lighter note, they also enjoy chatting with her and pulling her up when her knowledge is lacking. In fact, they even tell her the correct answers!
Both Google Assistant and Alexa are polished implementations of AI, improving daily. This tells us that voice assistance technology is ready to go mainstream and can be deployed by call centers in place of IVR, though its not yet ready to replace real people). However, I would rather chat with Alexa over a phone, than listen to a metallic voiced IVR menu. Moreover, the voice assistant on call can also prevent people from navigating torturous menus and help them get straight to what they want.
Face or fingerprint recognition can and should, replace the torturous process of password entry in banking services.
Make information accessible
I recently discovered that some seniors have a habit of photographing things that they can’t read, and then enlarging the photo on their phones. I totally empathise with this behavior. The day I forget my reading glasses, its near impossible for me to read any small print on packaging when I go shopping. I cannot read the ingredients, expiry date or even price, on most FMCG packaging. Medical packaging is even worse.
Elderly people are a vulnerable population for whom information is critical. They need to ingest the right medicines. They often have dietary restrictions hence they need to examine back of pack. They want to be sure of pricing and not be misled.
Hence it’s imperative to make pack information more easily accessible to them. And it does not need fresh innovation – it can be done using either one of two highly under-utilised innovations that are already accessible on literally every packaging – Bar Codes and QR Codes. The technology to read these is freely available on smart devices.
In China QR codes are used for everything from making payments, to sending contacts, to collecting alms, to applying for jobs, to tagging pets so they can be returned when lost. And yes, also in supermarkets to give information about produce.
In India, QR codes never took off quite the way they did in China, but there is a definite use case for elders. It will also create a touchpoint for marketers to give additional information about their products. So often, when I am out shopping, I see an elder accompanying their grandchild who wants some (junk) food or confectionary and the grandparent wants to know more about it before buying, and the youngster is not quite sure about answering the question. I am sure youngsters will use the barcodes to aid their grandparents, and get the goodies that they want, out of them!
Height adjustable seating
When people buy a car, one of the things they tend to do during a test drive, is bring their elderly parents along, to check if they can comfortably get into the back seat. Sites like Team BHP even use ‘senior citizen friendly access’ as an evaluation criterion.
It amazes me that we do not make allowance for elderly people’s difficulty in sitting down or standing up. In the toilet, in buses, in public seating areas, in automobiles, in public transport.
Height adjustable seating and commodes would go a long way to ease outings for our senior citizens. I don’t even think this is a high tech solution – in cars it is implemented as electronically or hydraulically adjustable seats (usually only for drivers)
Construction design for senior citizens
Builders often tout the proximity of hospitals and places of worship as ‘senior friendly’ features in their marketing material. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
We urgently need more senior centric design thinking when it comes to design of homes.
Many international and local studies cite that elders are prone to falling and the bathroom is a special danger zone. People often remodel their bathrooms for the usage of elders, including handrails, skid proof flooring and seating area for bathing, and widening of the bathroom door to accommodate walkers and wheelchairs. It would be great if these principles were incorporated into the planning stage.
Design changes need to be implemented not only in the home but also outside – avoiding steps where they are not needed, providing handrails and skid proof flooring in all public areas, just for starters.
Technology can be useful here too. Bright Angles has worked with a client who wanted to repurpose mobile phones fitted with data SIMs, as home monitoring devices. One of the prime uses cases was to keep an eye on elderly parents alone at home. Combine this with increasingly accessible smart home automation solutions and you can set up rules, reminders and voice activated alarms that can trump expensive conventional CCTV solutions in being a home caretaking solution.
Helping children to support parents
One of the crucial pillars of security in old age is adequate financial planning to account for daily expenses, cover the rising cost of living with time and at the same time account for emergency expenditure like hospitalization.
In our country, youngsters are expected to care for their old parents, but unfortunately even with the best intent, it becomes difficult for some to meet mounting expenses while in an increasing number of cases, kids are not supporting parents.
Affordable medical insurance for the elderly is a logical ask – but who will subsidize it? Insurance companies need to push for, and government policies need to offer, creative solutions.
Can there be a cess on insurance and tax paid by younger people which goes into a government corpus to subsidize insurance for the elderly? Today insurance companies have child plans, can they ask first jobbers to buy into parent plans, which will put money directly into their parents accounts on maturity? It would be a lovely way to empower children to contribute to their parents.
The corporate sector can help too. A report from Harvard Business School notes that 75% of US employees surveyed by them, were providing some sort of support to a caregiver. Further, only 8% of companies actually offered benefits or subsidy towards care of elders. I would suspect that if we replicated this study in India, we would end up with similar or higher figures of caregivers. As the report notes, it’s a wakeup call for HR to create policies and perks that help employees in caregiving, in order to reduce attrition.
I am no financial expert and I am aware that there are no easy solutions. But we need to start seeing more of them.
Online Communities to support caregivers
This is the most important point, and perhaps the entire point of this post.
Physical caregiving is one part of the solution, but it’s not the whole solution. What elder people benefit from is conversation and interaction and I have seen people worried that their elders are watching TV ‘all the time’ – it’s not really better for them, than it is for kids. And if they are not on the TV, then they are on YouTube. Caregivers can provide entertainment, but it’s not their core responsibility.
Yet at the same time, there is boredom and lack of mental stimulation. It’s not always possible to have a physical solution, hence online communities become an option.
Out of the plethora of social media options available, the one that seniors have taken to most effortlessly, is WhatsApp. They interact, chat and post forwards with gusto and ease. In fact, WhatsApp family groups are often powered by the seniors of the family – but that is a subject for a separate post.
I believe that using OTT messaging solutions (either WhatsApp or a dedicated app) can be an effective way of providing an online community to elders. It can be a one on one messaging solution (like a helpline) or it can be a support group for elders to interact. Ideally, it should be interest based, to avoid conflicts and clashes that can occur when controversial topics are discussed by people who do not think alike ? You might remember Band, the group chat app based on interests. I am proposing a Band for the elderly. Such groups may be hard to moderate, but it’s worth the effort.
One cannot under-estimate the power of a responsible online community in providing for mental well-being of senior citizens. From being available to chat about problems, to providing positive reinforcement and authentic news, they can actually anchor isolated individuals in a supportive environment and also ensure that physical help reaches when it is required.
Finally, more than any specific solutions, I think its important for businesses to start integrating senior-citizen friendly thinking into their design and innovation, as a practice.
HelpAge India has acknowledged the importance of tailoring solutions to the elderly through the Unmukt Festival, a unique annual event that provides a platform for corporates and businesses to showcase elderly-friendly products and services, and engage in a dialogue with senior citizens and their caregivers. We need such events and platforms today more than ever before. We need to reach out to more elderly people. Only then will we create a world that’s more empathetic and friendly to our burgeoning elderly population.
Nisha Sampath is a brand strategist and consumer insights expert with over 20 years of experience, and runs her own company, Bright Angles Consulting. She is passionate about applying technology to solve consumer needs and blogs at www.thegeekafterglow.com