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Innovations for a New Old Age - Slow But Coming

May 3, 2013, 3:25 PM

It is happening...but as the quote often associated with discussions of innovation suggests, "the future is here, it is just not evenly distributed...."

For years, I’ve predicted, promoted and pleaded for radical change in the way we think about old age. Now that more of us are living longer, a growing block of our lives is essentially going underutilized in terms of the things we can accomplish.

Now, change, albeit fragmented and small but more than just podium pounding, is on the wind.

In the last week alone, my inbox has been flooded with news about people trying to leverage the advantages of a new, productive old age – stories including the endeavors of older adults themselves, as well as those who hope to enable them.

Only a week ago the Wall Street Journal, published an account not only of older adults going out on a limb and starting new businesses, but also of organizations that are forming to support these entrepreneurs, including the Small Business Administration in partnership with AARP, score.org and my friend Marc Freedman's agenda-setting group Encore.org.

In the pages of the New York Times, I’m seeing psychologists catering to the unique concerns of older adults. Many of these patients have lost loved ones along the way, but find that a little help from a therapist can go a long way towards making the years or even decades that lie ahead fruitful and enjoyable. At the same time I’m seeing more and more adult day centers – not necessarily the first choice of activity for many – but exist to fill a very real need. Just like anyone else, older adults have to fill their days and stomachs, needs that can be tough to accomplish if you’re not expected or able to work.

As demographics change, new professions are emerging. Take the new Master’s degree in health-professions-specific education at the University of Michigan Medical School, the first of its kind. “As the number of medical schools and other health professions training programs expands, we must ensure that education programs – and the health professionals they produce – meet the highest quality standards,” Larry Gruppen, chair of the U-M Department of Medical Education and the Josiah Macy, Jr. Professor of Medical Education, was quoted as saying. Expect to see further expansion in novel health fields such as health education. Many of these spurred on by the growing numbers of older adults with health needs and in many cases the discretionary income to create new markets for both workers and services.

These examples are disparate, but if there’s one overarching trend line, it’s that the economy is starting to accommodate the needs as well as desires of older adults – and older adults’ needs are different from what they used to be. As we live longer and, increasingly, on our own, we’ll continue to want to work and play. Expect companies, organizations, degree-granting programs, entrepreneurs, governments and others to react, working to enable a more fruitful old age. Better yet, ask yourself if you’re ready to catch this wave, or if it will take you by surprise. Today, after all, is not only the first day of the rest of our lives – it’s also the first day of the future.


MIT AgeLab Luke Yoquinto contributed to this article.


Image by Shutterstock


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