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Is Regulation Helping or Hurting Innovation for Successful Aging?

Jess Stonefield November 4, 2019
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As the business of aging grows exponentially, is increased regulation the solution?

If there’s one thing Silicon Valley is teaching us these days, it’s that sometimes regulatory oversight is a good thing.

In a free-market economy, public interest often plays second fiddle to profit. That’s why regulation has become a necessary part of business development in the United States. Organizations like the Environmental Protection Agency, Federal Trade Commission and Department of Justice create laws about everything from environmental emissions to private equity investments—and now even social media—to keep the public safe. In the longevity marketplace, where consumers may be especially vulnerable, many would agree regulation holds an even more important role.

As the number of people aged 65+ aims to hit record highs in the coming decades, the business of aging is growing exponentially. The anti-aging industry alone is set to hit $270 billion+ by 2024. An influx of capital means an increased potential for fraud and other risks to human safety. Is increased regulation the solution?  

While some fear unregulated markets will hurt consumers, others fear too much regulation could hold hamper innovation in a time when we need it the most. Now more than ever, we need outside-the-box solutions for affordable housing, aging in place, behavioral care, and social connection, just to name a few. From housing and transportation to pharmaceuticals, retail, and entertainment, nearly every sector has its hand in the longevity pie. Will regulation help—or hurt—innovation for successful aging?

The Case for Regulation in the Longevity Marketplace

Sometimes, regulation is a must. This is especially true when systemic or cultural issues put certain populations in danger. For instance, the SEC has worked with state governments and other governing organizations to develop regulations that protect those 65+ from the growing issue of financial exploitation. The Americans with Disabilities Act, though not a 65+-specific regulation specifically, addresses the issue of accessibility, which can cause isolation for those with mobility concerns. When governing bodies recognize societal problems, many would agree they have a responsibility to institute laws to change them. Such is the case with current antitrust investigations into Facebook, Amazon, Google, and Apple.

A clear example of regulation improving the longevity marketplace specifically is in the area of senior housing. Today, numerous different housing options exist, in part due to quality and safety regulations that helped improve the industry. Organizations like Argentum often advocate in favor of state regulations on behalf of senior care providers. But Argentum also understands that too much regulation can be confusing, time-consuming, and expensive. Those issues ultimately impact senior care residents.

The problems arise when a regulation is onerous or inappropriate,” says John Schulte, vice president of quality improvement for Argentum. “When it doesn’t support resident choice, independence, and quality of life.”

The question then becomes: how do we know when a regulation is necessary—and when it’s simply holding the industry behind?

A Case Against Regulation in the Longevity Marketplace

As much as one might argue in favor of regulation in the longevity space, there are also many who feel too much regulation could interfere with developing the types of innovation that could revolutionize the field of aging. For instance, placing tight restrictions on pharmaceutical development could limit the researchers’ abilities to discover new and different therapies for certain diseases. Placing regulations on the number of residents in a senior housing community may impact an operator’s ability to create affordable housing. Regulating the amount of education that a home care provider has completed will even further limit the pool of potential workers in the aging care space.

“It’s not a matter of developing ‘fewer’ regulations,” says Paul Nussbaum, Ph.D., a board-certified clinical and geropsychologist focused on brain health in aging. “It’s a matter of developing the right regulations.”

In fact, there are numerous areas of the longevity marketplace that may benefit from relaxed regulation as we move through the coming decade. Fields like alternative medicine, for instance, may lead to breakthrough therapies that greatly enhance one’s health-span. Going easy on regulation in fields like technology and transportation could help find greater solutions to mobility issues that some people face as they grow older. Less regulation could also help deal with housing affordability, as it would allow operators to get a bit more creative in developing alternative living spaces to fit smaller budgets.

Unfortunately, there is not always a hard and fast litmus test for whether a regulation will improve quality of life, health outcomes, or even a greater sense of purpose and joy. However, the more we put those goals front-and-center in our product and service development, the fewer regulations we will need to govern the industry.

“We know there is a right and a wrong way of caring for older adults,” says Paul Nussbaum, Ph.D., a board-certified clinical and geropsychologist focused on brain health in aging. And when we commit to doing things in that way, regulations become less necessary.

Beyond Regulations: Incentivizing Public Interest

Perhaps the question isn’t whether regulation will help or harm the industry—it’s whether there are other options that could better support successful aging.

For instance, Schulte recommends developing industry standards, rather than government-enforced regulations, whenever possible. Once a government regulation is enforced, it’s incredibly difficult to rollback, he says. But standards, because they are self-regulated, can change and evolve with the industry, which is incredibly important in the field of aging.

Another option: incentives. In January, we shared a story, “Are Incentives the Next Innovation in Aging in Place?” In it, Louis Tenenbaum, a Next Avenue Influencer in Aging and author of Aging in Place 2.0, described the potential for incentives to drive an aging-in-place revolution. The same concept could be applied to the longevity industry overall.

For instance, imagine the progress we could make toward successful aging if we incentivize technology companies to involve older people in tech design? If we incentivize retailers to include older people in their ad campaigns… If we incentivize senior housing operators to build affordable housing… If we incentivize local communities to develop their own innovative solutions to the affordable housing issue… In a business sense, it could work far better than government regulations in driving the industry toward a new model of successful aging.

The truth is that there is no one solution that will help us meet the growing needs of a quickly aging 65+ community. A thoughtful mix of regulation, standards, incentives—and ethics—is necessary. By keeping the greater well-being of aging people at the center of the discussion, the industry will be able to determine which option, in which situation, holds the most promise.

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Jess Stonefield

Jess Stonefield is a contributing writer on aging, mental health and the greater longevity economy for publications such as Changing Aging, The Mighty and Next Avenue. She is passionate about impact investing and the greater concept of “equitable equity”—spreading wealth to all levels of our society. She is a communications expert for Senior Living Fund.

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