One of the keys to living longer is having supportive relationships. Researcher Laura Carstensen, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, identified a trend in relationships as we age: we prune our relationships as our time horizons shrink, choosing quality over quantity. This process of winnowing down social interaction with only those people who matter most, which she called the socioemotional selectivity theory, may be echoed in two 50+ consumer trends: spending on our pets and our home.
Since boomers were the first generation to grow up with television, maybe our love of pets came from the plethora of 50s and 60s TV shows featuring animals such as “Lassie,” “Mister Ed,” “Flipper,” “The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin” and the iconic cartoon, “Scooby-Doo.” Whatever it was it stuck.
A pet can fill the gap for daily companionship for the one in three adults over age 45 who report they are chronically lonely according to an AARP Foundation report. And a growing industry of services from mobile on-site bathing and grooming, food delivery and dog walkers, have removed the challenges for older, more frail adults from becoming pet owners.
Pet ownership among boomers reached 59%, while those age 70+ are at 41% according to a recent Harris Poll. The researchers also found 9 in 10 of all age groups consider their pet a member of the family. Many report that they talk to their pet every day, treat them like children buying Halloween outfits and birthday cupcakes, and invest in strollers and fashion trendy sweaters and beds. As the largest cohort of pet parents, the 50+ consumer is the largest driver behind the total $72.5 billion pet industry.
If a real furry companion is too troublesome, Ageless Innovation, a spin-off from the large toy and board game company Hasbro, has life-like robotic cat and dog companion pets that have become popular among both homebound seniors and assisted living residents.
Besides the love of pets, Americans love their homes, and consumers 50+ are taking two different approaches to feathering their nests.
One group of older adults is downsizing from large family homes into smaller condominiums or apartments in addition to moving from the suburbs into urban zones offering more social and cultural connections. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2017, the number of new single-family homes under 1,400 square feet increased from 17,000 to 21,000, and homes under 1,800 square feet increased from 79,000 to 90,000 units. This housing trend has led furniture retailers such as Restoration Hardware, Ikea and Pottery Barn to market “small spaces” items.
But for the most part, studies are showing boomers are not relocating, but are making home modifications in order to stay at home over the next 30-50 years. A 2017 survey conducted by the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture on behalf of online home improvement marketplace, Home Advisor, found respondents aged 55 to 75+ are making home improvements that will facilitate aging. Their motivation, according to the survey, was the desire for easier living, even more than safety or aesthetics. Opting for smart thermostats, keyless entries and no step shower entries are among the activities survey respondents cited.
“By taking a holistic approach to home improvement, these homeowners will get their homes in good working order before aging-specific home improvements become necessary,” said Marianne Cusato, adjunct associate professor at the University of Notre Dame’s School of Architecture who conducted the survey, in a press briefing on the report.
Cusato also highlighted that three in five of those surveyed ages 55-75 have experienced caregiving for an older loved one and report watching them struggle to get around their home as they got older—an experience that changed 50+ consumers’ feelings about how they themselves will age-in-place.
Whether it is smart lighting and thermostats, self-cleaning gutters, video doorbells or a complete bath or kitchen remodel, this home improvement trend in boomers aging-in-place is one of the reasons Best Buy, the consumer electronics retailer, offers customers a curated aging technology product selection with expert in-store or online guidance. To facilitate convenience, the retailer bundles purchases with its Geek Squad technicians, who can come to the home to install the items and provide ongoing technical support. This complete customer service package takes convenience to a whole new level for boomers who want to make their homes livable for another 20+ years (and for family caregivers who are helping older loved ones stay at home).
As retailers seek to build relationships with the valuable sector of older consumers, it’s worth remembering that the relationships we value are most are the one with those closest to us.