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Entrepreneurial Gerontology is a Thing—and We Need It

Sonya Barsness April 8, 2019
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Bridging entrepreneurialism and aging delivers limitless possibilities for new, innovative ways of supporting each other as we grow older.

As a gerontologist who never liked being put in a box, having worked in several settings within aging as well as across education, research, policy and practice, I often found myself inspired by out-of-the box, innovative ideas. My immersion in person-centered philosophy and practice further encouraged me to seek out new ways of doing things. So, I became something of an entrepreneurial gerontologist.

Entrepreneurialism, in the purest sense of the word, attempts to develop something new.

Entrepreneurial gerontology broadly refers to a bridging of the worlds of aging and innovation. This innovation is not just technological, although advancing technology provides us with possibilities to offer supports and services in a different way. This innovation is about allowing for creativity to develop and implement new ideas.

Entrepreneurial gerontology includes the entrepreneurial community and those in the field of gerontology and aging, which includes, but is not limited to, practice, policy, research, education, business, nonprofits, and government.

Gerontology Is Rooted in Innovative Potential

Gerontology, the study of aging, is necessarily a multidimensional field, as growing older is a multidimensional experience. Because gerontology looks at the whole person in all its complexity and uniqueness, and utilizes knowledge from various disciplines like psychology, biology, sociology, public policy, economics and healthcare, it has always had the potential to offer innovation. Unfortunately, the field of aging might be seen as the opposite of innovative.

It only makes sense that gerontology would find a perfect marriage with entrepreneurialism. This marriage exemplifies a paradigm shift in recognizing that growing older is best served by multidimensional supports and services. This is both for newly identified challenges, as well as longstanding challenges in aging, such as understanding how to best support people living with dementia, transforming long-term care and creating more senior residential options.

We need each other. We need entrepreneurialism to develop new ideas. And entrepreneurialism needs the field of aging to inform and test these ideas.

Within the aging ecosystem we hold pieces of experience and knowledge that is essential to entrepreneurial endeavors. Entrepreneurial gerontology taps into this knowledge and translates it into ideas that can truly be out of the box; are not “restricted” by payment sources, eligibility criteria, or traditional thinking about programs and services; and might be outside the traditional systems of supports and services, but also could be integrated/used by them.

Entrepreneurial Gerontology Is Already Happening

There are several examples of this. One is the Village model, which offers a network of services to older adult members living in their own homes in a particular geographic area. Another is the development of compact homes with universal designs that foster interdependence, such as the Minka model.

Entrepreneurial gerontology includes ideas like LifeBio and MemoryWell, which capture older individuals’ life stories. It is also organizations like Ibasho, which creates “socially integrated and sustainable communities that value their elders”. Or In the Moment, which provides “online education, support and inspiration to thrive in dementia and in life.” Just like there is no single story of growing older, there is no single story of innovations that are needed to support us as we grow older.

Entrepreneurial Gerontology Is a Way of Thinking Differently

Yet, entrepreneurial gerontology is not just about developing new products and services. It is a mindset that also offers new approaches to how we develop products and services.

For example, entrepreneurialism offers practices such as user-centered design, which ensures we actively seek out and use the perspectives of people who are growing older. This is counter to traditional ways of thinking about supports and systems for older adults that are driven by policy, reimbursement, or even paternalism. Entrepreneurialism offers concepts like open source and crowdsourcing, which encourages ideas to belong to everyone.

Another approach we gain from the innovation in entrepreneurial gerontology is the cross-pollination of different fields (outside of aging) that might see challenges and possibilities differently. For example, Stitch, “an online community which helps anyone over 50 find the companionship they need” was created because its founders saw technology being underutilized to foster these social connections. The founders’ backgrounds were in computer science, engineering, business, and communications.

Another opportunity in entrepreneurial gerontology is its potential is to break down silos in aging by integrating knowledge and experience from within various sectors of gerontology. While the silos of research, policy, and practice can be quite separated, entrepreneurialism is an opportunity to bring these worlds together. An example of this might be in the NIH SBIR (National Institutes of Health Small Business Innovation and Research Grant) program, which provides funding for small businesses to creative innovations to improve health. A central criterion of proposed ideas is that they must be founded in scientific merit, as well as having practical, innovative, and commercial value.

We Can All Be a Part of Promoting Entrepreneurial Gerontology

Entrepreneurial gerontology has been given a boost by the presence of entities like Aging 2.0, MIT AgeLab, the Hatchery – AARP’s Innovation Lab, and Ideo’s Designs On Aging. And there are several ways in which we can all further engage in entrepreneurial gerontology. 

  1. Cultivate the involvement of stakeholders in aging with entrepreneurial activities. This might include connecting with incubators, startup groups, or innovator networks like Aging 2.0 chapters, 1 Million Cups or Creative Mornings.
  2. Cultivate connections between entrepreneurs (who are not in the aging space) and professionals in aging to so that entrepreneurs gain from their knowledge. For example, an entrepreneur looking to disrupt long-term care might have an excellent innovation, but needs to better understand the culture of long-term care.
  3. Ensure that older people, and those who support them, are actively involved, informing both entrepreneurs and professionals in aging of the challenges and opportunities.
  4. Encourage students in gerontology and related fields to explore entrepreneurialism – there are limitless possibilities to do things differently and innovatively.

At the heart of innovation and the entrepreneurial mindset is the idea that we can always do better. When we embrace this mindset, it shifts our thinking from a focus on the “problems” of aging to a focus on the possibilities. Let’s move from “we can’t” to “how.”

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Sonya Barsness

Sonya Barsness is the founder of Sonya Barsness Consulting and the author of "Being Heard" at www.beingheard.blog. She is a revisionary gerontologist, and helps organizations and individuals apply new paradigms of growing older and growing with dementia into practice.

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