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Why Collaboration Is Crucial to Innovators in the Longevity Market

Ann Oldenburg December 16, 2019
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Put aging experts and business leaders in a room and what do you get? Everything from ageism advocacy to insights into financial wellness.

Propelling a successful venture into the longevity market right now can be challenging—especially when you try to do it alone. Building partnerships that deliver products and services to help us all age better was the focus of Stria and MBM Consulting’s recent networking event, “Collaborating for Longevity Market Success.”

The diverse gathering of thought-leaders in downtown Washington, D.C., came fresh on the heels of the release of Stria’s 2019 State of the Longevity Market Survey.

“I was struck by how frequently the concept of cross-sector collaboration came up for respondents,” Susan Donley, CEO and publisher of Stria, told the group. “We know that all kinds of partnerships are important, but tonight, we’re particularly thinking about partnerships between aging experts and businesses.”

Listening to the ‘Voice of the Consumer’

In addressing how aging experts can play a role in innovation, Tracey Gendron, chair of Virginia Commonwealth University’s department of gerontology, stressed the need for thinking beyond safety, surveillance and frailty. Instead she advises focusing on innovation that emphasizes “the higher-level parts of ourselves—self-actualization, purpose, belonging.” This approach, she says, creates the opportunity to innovate based on what people actually need and want.

“When I talk about aging in front of a group of elders, I always say that I don’t know what I’m talking about,” said Gendron, who very much does know what she’s talking about. But she tells older people, “I can share with you the theories, I can share with you what I know, but I hope that you can share with me your experiences. In that way, the voice of the consumer is really, really essential.”

Surya Kolluri, managing director at Bank of America, said he tackles the concept of “what people want” from three different viewpoints: individuals, companies and employees. Recognizing the need to help bankers better understand the changing demographics of our world, he said Bank of America has built partnerships with aging-focused institutions including MIT’s AgeLab and Wharton’s Pension Research Council. Kolluri also noted that the company hired a gerontologist onto their staff to create a special Gerontology Certification for financial advisors.

“We actually think it’s the Golden Age of Financial Advice,” he said, adding that while every facet of the business has different needs, “the biggest trend is financial wellness.”

Offering a local perspective on the needs of older people, William Yates, coordinator of the YMCA’s Fit & Well Seniors program, focused on aspects of physical wellness. He rocked the panel discussion by leading a quick neck stretch exercise, barking out a count of 10 as everyone in the room looked over one shoulder and then the other.

“Most of us don’t want to consider ourselves ‘old.’” Yates said, not needing a microphone to make himself heard to the crowd. “If I were to ask you, ‘When did you feel most capable?’ chances are you would reflect to an earlier time, when you were younger. But chances are you stayed up late and you weren’t eating correctly. The older you get, you actually have control over all of those. You control what goes in your mouth, when you sleep and every dollar that you spend.”

“We use innovation to help us,” he said, when sharing how his programs in DC, Maryland and Virginia area have attracted over 5,000 participants. “I personally don’t like to work out, but I look forward to being 100 and having all of my faculties.”

A Case Study on Collaboration

“If you are an entrepreneur in the longevity economy and aging tech and you have not been to Louisville, that should be your first stop,” said Todd Smith, CEO and founder of MyFamilyChannel.com, a communication platform that runs on a television, enabling older adults to engage digitally and socially on a platform that is comfortable and familiar. To hone his product, Smith needed to do research. For his team to understand his 85+ target audience required a “deep dive into getting to know that consumer.”

He went to The Thrive Center, a nonprofit in Louisville that he described as a “convening community hub” where seniors, students, entrepreneurs and innovators come together every day.

Sheri Rose, CEO of Thrive, explained, “We open our doors to entrepreneurs. We want them to be good stewards of investment dollars.” She also touts the center’s focus on aging-in-place. “We’ve got to be more strategic in our approach in pushing this innovation and care delivery out into the community because that’s where we’re going to be aging.”

Rose’s goal is to integrate the technology and products into wellness programs for seniors, so that entrepreneurs can learn and improve their offerings. The model has become a big success. Rose said she’s been asked many times to create other centers like Thrive around the country.

Added Smith, “Shari really has built a very cool ecosystem. Come see us!”

The Perception Is That Businesses Don’t Care

All the panelists agreed that building consumer trust is crucial, whether you’re a start-up, a nonprofit or a big business. But the final presenter shared data that shows there’s work to be done on that front.

Meaghan McMahon, event cohost and founder of MBM Consulting, reported on findings of a Stria survey that asked consumers age 50+ what they think about the businesses they interact with on a daily basis. Among the findings was that 65% of respondents think that businesses overall, small and large, do not care about older consumers.

“The word respect came up numerous times,” said McMahon when sharing some of the feedback the survey collected on how to better serve older consumers. “And ageism is a problem that they noted in both marketing and shopping.”

Gendron said this perspective didn’t surprise her at all, “not even a tiny little bit.” She noted that our world “is designed for people moving fast and walking fast, and we have very little patience for people that don’t. Those are the 65% that think you ‘don’t care.’”

The VCU professor went on, “It’s time that we stop with this ‘seniors want this’ and ‘older people want that’—they want what everybody wants, which is to live with dignity and with as much independence and autonomy as they can.”

She added, “Stop the conversation about them. It’s about us.

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Ann Oldenburg

Ann Oldenburg, who started her career at The Washington Post and was a longtime culture writer at USA Today, is assistant director of the Journalism Program at Georgetown University. An advocate of lifelong learning, she is a member of the first cohort of Georgetown's new Aging & Health master’s program.

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