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Baby Boomers have left an indelible imprint upon everything from popular culture to science and technology, business and key issues such as women’s rights, sexism and civil rights. Now they are breaking down one of the last remaining obstacles in their path: aging.

Loosely defined as those people born in the post-war period stretching from 1946 to 1964, Boomers comprise a large and immensely powerful segment of the global population.

They are celebrated for giving the world everything from the Beatles (though technically John, Paul, George and Ringo were all born before the end of World War II) to Stephen Hawking and the Jarvik 7 implantable artificial heart.

They are also criticized by younger generations, particularly the Millennials, for advancing conspicuous consumption and the birth of the “Me Generation.” Yet arguably, no group possesses the unique combination of resolve, stubbornness and, yes, self-interest required to change the thinking around age and aging.

There are an estimated 1.6 billion people aged 50 or older in the world, and that number is expected to double over the next three decades as improved healthcare and growing awareness of the importance of diet and exercise extend human life.

The typical human lifespan increased by 30 years during the 20th century, according to the World Health Organization. In Canada, life expectancy at birth is now 81.1 years, and 20.2 years at age 65.

This longer lifespan is defined not by a longer period of extreme old age, but extended middle age – prolonging the time that people are at their most creative and productive. The Financial Times recently identified over-50s as the “new business start-up generation,” while a 2016 report from the UK’s Centre for Ageing Better stated that older workers “are vital for the future of the economy.”

While North American society has historically discounted and marginalized older people – think how advertisers tend to group people 55 and over into a single, homogenous entity – Boomers are sweeping aside the notion that life after 50 is a gradual decline into irrelevance.

“Fashion Santa” Paul Mason Photo: Paul Mason Management

If jolly old St. Nick represents what aging and old age looked like for the Greatest Generation and the Silent Generation, then Canada’s hugely popular “Fashion Santa” – a dapper, debonair figure originally portrayed by the 50-plus model Paul Mason – might reasonably be considered the Boomer equivalent. His hair might be grey, but he’s not wearing sandals with socks or spending his days and nights in front of the TV.

Canada’s 9.6 million Boomers account for more than a quarter (29 percent) of the population, but this 50-plus crowd is redefining the accepted notion of what “old age” looks like.

The longevity economy

Research suggests that these older Canadians intend to work longer (30 percent of Canadians aged 65 to 69 have either a full- or part-time job, according to Statistics Canada), live better, keep moving and stay sharp.

Thanks to a steadfast refusal to accept the conventional notion of aging, they are a powerful consumer demographic, reshaping such industries as travel (the Canadian Tourism Research Institute predicts that people 55 and older will be the main pleasure travel market in the next decade, spending $35 million a year) and automobiles (think of heated seats that can alleviate arthritis symptoms, as well as automatic tailgates, lumbar support and autonomous vehicles).

A recent report by the Media Technology Monitors found that 66 percent of older Boomers (defined as people 61 to 71) and 78 percent of younger Boomers (51 to 60) own a smartphone, while 58 percent of younger Boomers are likely to own a tablet, and 41 percent are likely to own a console video game system such as PlayStation or Xbox.

The upshot is that Boomers continue to be active consumers well beyond the traditional retirement age. The combined economic impact of the world’s 50-plus population has been pegged at $15 trillion US, making the so-called “longevity economy” the third largest economy in the world, behind only the US and China.

This, in turn, gives rise to unprecedented opportunities for new business models, products and services designed to respond to the changing conversations and expectations about aging, as well as healthcare.

The new healthcare consumer expects more from the retail experience. They don’t want to have the same old conversations around aging.

Theresa Firestone, SVP, healthcare businesses for Shoppers Drug Mart

The new healthcare consumer

Getting older is inextricably tied to health issues, and the sheer size of the Boomer population means that pressure on Canada’s healthcare system will continue to build in the coming decades.

It has been referred to as a “grey tsunami,” but that is something of a misnomer. Rather than destroying everything in its path, the Boomer generation is actually remaking the healthcare system according to its own wants and needs.

Boomers have grown accustomed to getting things their way, and healthcare is no different: The family doctor is no longer the only authority, but a healthcare collaborator; long wait times for the ER or specialists are unacceptable; and Boomers are increasingly pushing for solutions that will allow them to maintain an active lifestyle and age at home.

According to a survey by the Royal Bank of Canada, 83 percent of Canadian Boomers want to stay in their own home and pay for care as needed as they head into their retirement years.

Dawn Richards, volunteer vice president of the Canadian Arthritis Patient Alliance, an advocacy group working to increase both public and political awareness of arthritis (which afflicts 33.2 percent of women and 21.3 percent of men between the ages of 55 and 64), says that Boomers are actively involved in creating a better system.

“As we age, we need to understand the right and responsibility of taking care of ourselves,” she says. “You need to ask questions … [and] look to other healthcare professionals, like your pharmacist, to provide information.”

Richards is currently working on projects to help design studies that drive improved patient outcomes. “It’s important to communicate with researchers and companies about what it’s like to live with different issues so they can develop better studies and better products,” she says. “You have to be your own advocate, and part of that is taking responsibility for, and control of, your life, understanding what you can control, and making that part of your daily routine.”

When Dr. Laurent Marcoux took over as president of the Canadian Medical Association, he noted in the organization’s official journal, CMAJ, that “(t)he mindset is different than before, and we are the ones who serve the patients. We have to put the interests and the needs of our patients as a whole before our own.”

Empowering aging consumers

Changing attitudes toward health and healthcare are giving rise to new opportunities for businesses to connect with Boomers on their terms. Research shows Canadians want to take charge of the way they age, therefore are seeking products and services that enable them to respond to their specific lifestyles and challenges.

A new store concept introduced by Shoppers Drug Mart called Wellwise fills that gap, offering a wide variety of products and services for people who want to stay active and well, from weekend warriors to Boomers and caregivers.

Theresa Firestone, senior vice president, healthcare businesses for Shoppers Drug Mart, says the store’s concept is defined not by illness, but wellness – an important distinction.

“We are more than a store; we are a solutions provider,” says Firestone. “That spans everything from our product selection to education programs, training our staff to understand the demographic, and having experts on hand to consult on diet, sleep, mobility aids, exercise and more. It’s big-picture wellness, and the focus is on helping people live active, healthy lives.”

In addition, Wellwise offers an array of personalized home solutions that promote mobility (ramps, stair rails) and home comfort (bathroom safety, lift chairs), with a strong design aesthetic – such as bath benches in a variety of finishes – that appeals to style-conscious Boomers.

Shoppers has also worked hard to ensure that Boomers, who are notoriously prickly about being regarded as old, don’t perceive Wellwise as what Firestone calls an “old people’s store.”

Instead, it employs a bright, modern aesthetic that encourages customers to examine and try out products, while tech-savvy Boomers can shop online at www.wellwise.ca.  “The new healthcare consumer expects more from the retail experience,” says Firestone. “They don’t want to have the same old conversations around aging.”

The long game here is how do we make Canada the best country in the world for people to age in.

Dr. Alex Mihailidis, scientific director, AGE-WELL

Technology reinvents aging

While retail is changing to meet Boomers’ expectations, a rash of healthcare-centric organizations is also springing up to meet their changing needs and attitudes, most notably around growing concepts such as home health services (a $4 billion industry in Canada, according to IBISWorld) and “aging-in-place” technology.

The global organization StartUp Health Companies, for example, is leading a movement to transform health by building a community of what it calls “Healthcare Transformers” to achieve 10 key healthcare “Moonshots.”

These include an Access to Care Moonshot aimed at delivering high-quality care to everyone, regardless of location or income; a Cancer Moonshot aimed at ending cancer as we know it; and a Longevity Moonshot, aimed at extending healthy life by 50 or more years.

The organization claims the world’s largest portfolio of digital health companies (more than 200) across 20 countries and more than 60 cities, and boasts an array of high-profile partners and backers, including Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, AOL co-founder Steve Case and companies such as GE, Bayer and SAP Health.

Closer to home, the pan-Canadian organization AGE-WELL, a federally-funded Network of Centres of Excellence, is spearheading research into the use of advanced technologies aimed at increasing independence, social participation and physical well-being for older Canadians.

“The long game here is how do we make Canada the best country in the world for people to age in,” says AGE-WELL’s scientific director, Dr. Alex Mihailidis. “How do we keep people in their own homes and communities, and provide them with as much choice as possible in terms of how they want to age and where they want to grow older?”

AGE-WELL currently has more than 70 products in various stages of development, aimed at providing technological solutions for what Dr. Mihailidis describes as the “wicked problems” of aging, such as reduced physical abilities and dementia.

Dr. Mihailidis says that technology has traditionally been the “big missing piece” in solutions focused on aging and longevity, but points out that AGE-WELL is also committed to the necessary work around delivery, policies and practices that enables companies to put these technological solutions into the hands of older people and caregivers.

“We can design the coolest robot possible – that works really well. But if the service delivery model and the policy aren’t there to back it up, it’s not going anywhere,” says Mihailidis. “It’s going to sit in the lab and not get into the hands of people who need it. It’s not enough to just develop the technology; we need to consider these other aspects.”

The future is artificial intelligence

Around the globe, countries are invested heavily in the technology and aging sector, including artificial intelligence, which is expected to be a $47 billion industry by 2020. Last year, the federal government announced $125 million in funding for the Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy, administered through the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research.

Healthcare is an area where AI is already playing a significant role. According to venture capital database CB Insights, about 86 percent of healthcare providers, life science companies and tech-focused healthcare companies currently have some form of involvement with AI, which has multiple applications – from improving drug discovery, to diagnosing eye diseases, to early detection of diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

Toronto futurist Jesse Hirsh is enthused by technology’s ability to facilitate better health, saying it has the potential to change the conversation around aging and healthcare. “It can make everyone’s life easier, and allow caregivers to focus on the human side of caregiving instead of the logistical aspects.”

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Caregivers rise to the challenge

Caregivers are a key constituency in the aging equation: An estimated one in four Canadians is an unpaid caregiver for a loved one.

According to Carers Canada, half of these caregivers are between the ages of 45 and 65 (their peak earning years) and contribute more than $25 billion in unpaid labour to the healthcare system. According to Statistics Canada, 61 percent of caregivers are juggling work and caregiving responsibilities.

These caregivers tend to be younger and more tech-savvy than their predecessors, with a greater expectation of the role that technology can play in healthcare.

Changing the system for everyone

From healthcare professionals to patients and caregivers, no segment of today’s healthcare system is immune to the transformative power of technology. In a world where information about every ailment is readily available via Dr. Google, the system has no choice but to adapt.

Patients in some jurisdictions already have the ability to book a doctor’s appointment online, and can even access test results and medical records via the web. These developments are merely the tip of the iceberg.

Segments as diverse as retail, publishing and music have all been radically transformed by technology, and healthcare is no different. There is one key difference, however: Unlike those industries, healthcare isn’t changing to meet the demands of youth, but the requirements of the over-50 crowd.

Boomers have been criticized in the past for their influence on every element of society. Yet, they are bringing about changes that will benefit not only themselves, but also future generations.

Originally published in Issue 01 of YouAreUNLTD Magazine.

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Chris Powell
Chris Powell is a Toronto-based writer whose career pre-dates the dot-com era. He has interviewed everyone from Mike Babcock to Mike Myers, as well as hundreds of other people not named Mike. His work has appeared in consumer magazines including Reader's Digest, Today's Parent, Maclean's and Canadian Business, as well as Leafs and Raptors magazines.