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On the Frontline of Age Tech: 5 Questions with Keren Etkin

Keren Etkin

What do you get when you put a tech-savvy millennial together with a trained gerontologist? 

If you’re lucky, you get Keren Etkin, the 32-year-old Israeli founder of the website the Gerontechnologist, which is devoted to tracking Age Tech developments in several different countries. You heard that right: Age Tech. When technology and innovation are leveraged to address the needs and wants of an older population, that’s Age Tech. Keren’s early work with Holocaust survivors inspired her to pivot away from a career in the life sciences and into the field of gerontology when she was just in her 20s. (In case you were wondering, yes, “it definitely raised a few eyebrows.”) 

Before launching her website, Keren worked as an in-house gerontologist with the startup Intuition Robotics, where she helped research and develop the robot ElliQ, a voice-activated social companion for older adults. And she was recently named one of the winners of the 2019 Influencer in Aging award. Here are Keren’s thoughts on how good product design can spark joy, the limitations of the current gig economy and why digital health products only scratch the surface of tech innovation for seniors.

ALEX.fyi:

You live in Tel Aviv and have studied Age Tech innovations in a number of different countries. How have you seen some of the cultural differences play out in the tech offerings?

KE:

Different countries have not only different cultures but also different pain points when it comes to the aging of the population. In the US, for example, it’s not unusual for people to live several hours away from their aging parents, which means they can’t just stop by and check in on them whenever they want to. For these people, tech that can help them care for their parents remotely could be quite useful. In countries where families live in close proximity and several siblings care for the aging parents, a care-coordination tool might be more useful. 

Generally speaking, from my experience, the more “mature” the AgeTech ecosystem is in a certain country, the more diverse it is. People often think that AgeTech is a subsector of digital health, and although there’s some overlap, I don’t believe that is the case. In countries that have many AgeTech startups, you’ll find a more well-rounded ecosystem that reflects the diversity of the aging population… It will offer a variety of tech-based products and services for a variety of needs that older adults might have, like staying engaged in society, traveling, working past retirement age, etc.

In countries that have a very young ecosystem, and are only now starting to think of older adults as possible consumers for tech, you’ll probably see startups developing digital health products for the aging population- which is great and necessary- but older adults are not just patients, they have other wants and needs. It’s important to understand that the aging population is extremely diverse, and a 65 year old baby boomer probably has different wants and needs than their parent who’s 85 years old, although they’re both considered “old.”

ALEX.fyi:

Practical technology for older consumers is wonderful. But there’s a strain of Age Tech that some- including the head of the MIT Age Lab- describe as “big, beige, boring products, built to solve the perceived limitations of older adults, not the actual job of the consumer.” What are some examples that you’ve seen of Age Tech that sparks joy?

KE:

“In countries that have a very young {AgeTech} ecosystem, and are only now starting to think of older adults as possible consumers for tech, you’ll probably see startups developing digital health products for the aging population- which is great and necessary- but older adults are not just patients, they have other wants and needs.”

I believe the days of “big, beige and boring” are mostly over. Startups developing tech for older adults understand that they have to put an emphasis on good design. As for examples, I would have to say ElliQ, that was developed by Intuition Robotics, is a joyful product (full disclosure – I used to work there), that was designed by award-winning industrial designer Yves Behar. There are also several startups who are developing music therapy solutions for the aging population, and music can certainly bring you joy. Then we have some startups who are developing tech that enables and encourages older adults to stay physically active, like Motitech, and as we all know, when you exercise, your body releases endorphins which make you feel better. You could say that any product that helps people exercise actually sparks joy.

ALEX.fyi:

You’ve described a deep-seated bias against robot-assisted caregiving that exists in many countries, with Japan being a standout exception. Yet many people are resigned- as you so poignantly put it- to the TV being a machine that seniors who feel isolated use for companionship. What would you say to doubters of the benefits of robotic helpers?

KE:

There’s no debate over the fact that humans are social beings. Human companionship is crucial to our well-being. Unfortunately, it isn’t very common for people to visit their aging parents and grandparents every day. In some countries, families only meet face to face during the holidays which can be months apart. 

We used to call our parents and grandparents, so they could hear our voices. Video calls were supposed to be even better than phone calls, but they haven’t replaced them. Instead, phone calls were replaced by text message, which are missing the key ingredients of human interaction; tone of voice, facial expressions and body language. 

For some aging adults, texting is challenging- and even for those who are tech savvy and have no issues with reduced vision or dexterity, it isn’t always the preferred means of communication. We have to find a way to bring back our aging parents and grandparents into the digital family conversation. I wish I could share pictures and voice messages and constantly text my grandmother the same way I do with everyone else in my life. Currently, a social robot like ElliQ is a good way to bridge the digital divide and to enable that, not to mention all the other stuff it can do. 

ALEX.fyi:

There has traditionally been a focus in Age Tech around health issues- but not Fintech in the sector. Why do you think that is? And what’s another sector of the Age Tech space that’s ripe for innovation? 

KE:

Fintech for older adults is gaining momentum. I think the reason that digital health for older adults is currently bigger than fintech for older adults is that, generally speaking, the pain points in healthcare for the aging population are more “visible” for entrepreneurs who want to innovate in aging. As for other areas that are ripe for innovation, the “future of work” will definitely include older adults. Lots of people would still like to work past official retirement, at least part time. They could, of course, participate in the gig economy and become Uber drivers or sellers on Fiverr, but I’m not sure that’s the best way we as a society can utilize their talents, experience and expertise. We need to come up with something new.

ALEX.fyi:

Some say that ageism is the last socially acceptable “ism”- which is especially odd since it is discrimination against one’s future self. When you think ahead to your future, older self, what are some of the technologies that would be on your personal wish list?

“On top of my personal wish list are technologies for smart cities (which have to be age friendly) and the smart home, in which the technology is an integral part and just operates in the background without us needing to do anything. Hopefully we’ll eventually get to a point that people’s health expectancy increases significantly, and their home and community support their independence, so most people can continue to age in place.”

KE:

Great question. I would have to say that on top of my personal wish list are technologies for smart cities (which have to be age friendly) and the smart home, in which the technology is an integral part and just operates in the background without us needing to do anything. Hopefully we’ll eventually get to a point that people’s health expectancy increases significantly, and their home and community support their independence, so most people can continue to age in place. I think we’re headed in that direction and hopefully we’ll get there within a decade or two.