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Innovation & the Future of Aging Services

We all know that America (and everyone else in the world) is aging. Aging thus far has been a story of ‘more’. More older adults, the need for more services, more challenges to health and well-being, but there is another dimension – the need for more innovation. The next generation of old – the baby boomers – have great expectations to live longer, better. This includes services made for them, delivery strategies that fit their desired lifestyles in old age and care options that meet their wants as well as their needs. The disruptive demographics of an aging society is challenging business and government – it will also demand new thinking in aging services.

I addressed the nearly 8,500 attendees at the LeadingAge Annual meeting at the Denver Convention Center this week. LeadingAge represents the non-profits and people who do much of the heavy lifting in aging. LeadingAge’s members represent the nation’s aging services network of 6,000 organizations that touch 4 million individuals, families, employees and volunteers every day. In short, these are the backbone of the nation’s careforce – preparing and seeking innovations in caring for the next generation of older Americans as they provide care to today’s.

Some of that innovation will come from technology. Seamless and ubiquitous connectivity is available though not yet widely distributed. In selected markets around the world it is here. A plethora of devices and sensors will be available to monitor, manage and motivate an older population to take their meds, eat well, exercise and all the things that will enhance well-being and with any luck lifelong engagement. Yes, our smart toasters will chat with our refrigerator to ensure we have something fresh in the morning while our kitchens will sense if our breakfast choice is as healthy as it is tasty. Even our toilets may be wired to tattle on us if we have not taken our medication or have been snacking more than our fair share of brownies. These systems can and will eventually be ‘wired’ to both non-profit and for-profit aging services providers. These ‘smart systems’ will add a new layer of capability (and complexity) to the devices that are already available to call for ‘help, when you have fallen and can’t get up‘. But, despite the gee whiz of technology, technology alone is not innovation.

Innovation is about doing things differently and achieving better outcomes. This requires more than technology it requires new thinking altogether – systems thinking – that addresses organizational design, workforce, collaboration and even expectations. Here are a few recommendations that I left with LeadingAge – the dedicated people that rarely have the time to contemplate what might be, because they are too busy caring for many of us right now.

Demand Outcomes – there are many devices, systems and related technologies that are seeking to enter the ‘aging marketplace’ through aging services providers and senior housing operators. However, technology changes too fast to build a facility or services organization on a shoestring budget based upon one widget at a time. Consider the iPad. Today it is the new norm for many…yet it has been here a few short years…how long will it be until it becomes old news? Aging services providers should demand that technology developers deliver outcomes. Engineers work best when given problems to solve. Few of us would ever buy a cable box – the ‘job’ we want done as television viewers is clear programming when we want, how we want. When the technology changes, not our problem. It is up to the cable provider to change the box, I am buying a service outcome not a commodity. Likewise, aging services providers might want to ask themselves what outcomes do they want to achieve and engage technology providers who can deliver those results not boxes.

Create Partnerships – aging services providers should seek new partnerships with retailers, telecommunications firms, even home delivery companies. Many of these firms are already looking at the aging population as a new opportunity. A trip to the local drug store or grocer’s in-house medical clinic is evidence that there are synergies. Why not a aging services provided caregiver support function at the local drug store to support families with any number of issues, e.g., medication management. Aging services providers provide knowledge and trusted creditability. The private sector provides scale, processes, technology and nearly ubiquitous access in a particular neighborhood, community or region.

Develop New Services – old age is not what it used to be. While we think of the older adults as receiving services, the consumer is often the adult child caregiver. Typically the oldest adult daughter, she is looking for someone to help vet and cut through the clutter to identify what her care options might be – can aging services be the new trusted information provider before filling the need of formal caregiver? This is a service needed by families as well as employers trying to support a productive workforce sandwiched between kids and aging parents.

Develop a NexGen Careforce – new technologies, partnerships and services will expand the job description of an already overburdened aging services provider. Educators, aging services providers and the manufacturers of the technologies that will provide new platforms of care must educate, envision and invest in the next generation care professional– someone that is caregiver, tech-savvy, ready collaborator and agile in both non-profit and for-profit worlds.

The future of aging services will have many of the elements it provides today – expertise, a tender touch when needed and a place for the many who have either no family, few resources or even fewer care options when they are most needed. Aging services will also have many new dimensions requiring a workforce to be as tech-savvy as they are care-savvy; an organizational capacity to collaborate with all levels of government as well as an emerging private sector interest in aging; and, the ability to respond to the unique if not seemingly insatiable demands of the nation’s most demanding generation – the baby boomers who will seek more than bingo in old age, virtual or otherwise. 


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