Photo: Michelle Quance

We’re all getting older and it’s up to each and every one us to redefine what that looks like. The possibilities presented by a population that is living longer, better, is one of the biggest social and economic disrupters of our time. It is giving rise to the longevity economy and a slew of untapped opportunities in business, healthcare and personal growth.

Photo: Michelle Quance

Recently, like-minded aging influencers gathered in Toronto for YouAreUNLTD’s inaugural thought leadership conference about aging and care—UNLTD Live! The event, held at TIFF Bell Lightbox, brought together great leaders and executives from diverse industries and organizations to explore what we know is one of the most transformative market trends in history—the rise of new aging consumer, who is changing what it means to get older and is looking for the knowledge, products and services to age powerfully, on their terms.

Meeting these needs and creating a world where aging is seen as an opportunity—not a liability—requires a shift in thinking across all realms of society, from individuals to policymakers, entrepreneurs, healthcare professionals and business leaders.

Shifting the paradigm on aging

Getting old isn’t what it used to be, yet society still internalizes and reflects outdated biases about aging.

Christine Nielsen wants society to shift how it perceives aging. Photo: Michelle Quance

In her session, “Why Aging Isn’t Sexy (Yet), ”Contrast Consulting founder and CEO Christine Nielsen addressed the pressing need to shift the paradigm when it comes to how we perceive aging.

“It’s about our perceptions. How the world shows up for us. Our experiences… ,” she says. In other words, when we dispel the stereotypes and embrace a true reflection of the realities of a vibrant aging population, it changes how we all think about getting older. And that responsibility—to bust myths, call out ageism, tell people’s stories and change the conversation about what aging looks like in this day and age—lies with all of us.

It’s a movement with momentum and YouAreUNLTD is spearheading the positive aging space in Canada. As emcee for the daylong conference, Nielsen challenged the audience of business leaders and researchers to rise to the occasion—rather than seeing only the limitations that are too often associated with aging, explore instead the possibilities.

Embrace a limitless mindset

Tracy Schmitt is author of Unstoppable You.  Photo: Michelle Quance

During her opening keynote, award-winning business leader, world traveller, decorated athlete, humanitarian, best-selling author and four-way amputee Unstoppable Tracy Schmitt shared her personal story, business insights and lim(b)itless attitude. She challenged conference participants to open their minds, think differently about aging and consider the role their organizations could play in creating a society that gives older adults the respect and consideration they deserve.

“There is a place for every one of us… no matter what our age is,” says Schmitt.

Marketing to the powerful older demographic

It was a theme woven throughout the day. Jeff Weiss, CEO, Age of Majority, joined YouAreUNLTD’s managing director, digital, Cass Enright to discuss “Aging as a Powerful Market Driver.”

Cass Enright and Jeff Weiss discuss aging as a powerful market driver. Photo: Michelle Quance

The duo examined how the majority of marketers speak to an aging population, pointing out that too often advertising perpetuates stereotypes that make a mockery out of getting older. In most cases, marketers don’t speak to the active aging population at all, opting instead to invest in targetting Millennials. Big mistake.

“The way most businesses talk to the aging consumer is not relevant anymore and it hasn’t been in a while,” says Enright. “It’s like a new continent is rising out of the sea and that’s this new demographic.”

Canada is home to 9.6 million Boomers—almost one in every three residents—who control a vast majority of wealth.

There are 1.6 billion people aged 50 or older in the world. That number is expected to double over the next three decades. People are living longer in better health and with more wealth. Canada already houses a population of 9.6 million Boomers—almost one in every three residents. They control a vast majority of wealth in Canada and are positioned to inherit $750 billion by 2026.

The duo emphasized the massive gap between what marketers think people 55+ spend and the reality. Some examples of these gaps include:

  • Food: $7 billion
  • Automobiles: $2 billion
  • Personal care products: $1.5 billion
  • Entertainment: $1 billion
  • Financial services: $1 billion

That’s a whole lot of missed opportunities to drive brand loyalty and provide innovative products and services that speak to the needs and desires of an older demographic.

Enright and Weiss encouraged those in the audience to reposition current brands, add new products to the mix or rethink the customer experience to connect with older consumers.

They emphasized addressing ageism in advertising as a good place to start the shift. Older adults should take centre stage in the creative brief, banish outdated imagery (no more stock images of walking on the beach or looking confused when using technology) and adjust tone and language.

It’s critical to show vibrant older people as part of a larger effort to shift the paradigm on aging. In a lively panel, members of ACTRA Toronto’s Act Your Age committee (Canadian actors Joan Gregson, Pam Hyatt and Art Hindle) discussed how perceptions of aging performers are changing.

Cass Enright with ACTRA panelists Joan Gregson, Pam Hyatt and Art Hindle. Photo: Michelle Quance

“Without public role models and a place in the story it is all too easy for aging people to become invisible to others.”

“Our society’s preoccupation with youth means older actors are also forgotten,” says Hindle, adding entertainment and media have an essential play in reflecting the positive realities of aging. “Without public role models and a place in the story it is all too easy for aging people to become invisible to others.”

Enright highlighted YouAreUNLTD’s approach, which showcases the older demographic as vibrant engaged individuals with interests and concerns that span intimacy and sexual health, as well as nutrition, meaningful travel, elite athleticism, careers and healthy solutions to enable them to age differently than previous generations.

“This audience wants rich, deep content backed by evidence.”

“Content not coupons and complexity not clips,” says Enright of the best way to communicate with active agers. “This audience wants rich, deep content backed by evidence.”

Weiss stresses the need for businesses to shift the paradigm and succeed with this influential consumer demographic. There has to be support and buy-in at the top level.

Kobo puts sophisticated readers at the centre of its business

That type of high-level leadership is what’s helped propel Rakuten Kobo to $600 million in revenue this year.

President and CEO Michael Tamblyn took to the stage to talk about his company, recalling Kobo’s foray into the revolutionary ereader days. “We were a young innovative start-up filled with young innovative people and we were pretty sure all our customers were like us.”

Kobo president and CEO Michael Tamblyn says improving usability for older adults improves it for everyone. Photo: Michelle Quance

A year into the business, Tamblyn took a phone call that changed everything. It was a customer named Alan, who was in his 90s, and had fought his way through levels of customer care to talk to the CEO about an issue with his credit card. Once Tamblyn promised to resolve the issue, he listened and learned a bit about the man, who was an avid reader into his 80s until his passion was thwarted by macular degeneration and the sheer weight (and lack of choice) of large-print books.

“E-books are the first media transition to digital where the driving force is a 55-year-old woman.”

“After 10 years without books, Alan was back reading again. It was this first tiny crack for me in this mirror image of who I thought our customer was,” explains Tamblyn. He discovered his customers didn’t look like stereotypical tech adopters, but rather bookstore customers. “E-books are the first media transition to digital where the driving force is a 55-year-old woman.”

When the company started researching and getting to know these customers (Read: Sophisticated Consumers Shape Kobo Technology), this changed their focus and their product. They didn’t abandon other readers, but they did discover that improving usability for older adults improves it for everyone.

“None of this was easy and we had to overcome a lot of bias inside our own company. Even when see money being made,” says Tamblyn, adding it was worth it. “We are a perfect example of a company that is gaining commercial momentum as a result of being better at the changes that are necessary to succeed throughout the life course and it’s made us, a Canadian technology company, stronger, not just in Canada, but around the world.”

“This is not what the cool kids are working on right now and that is fantastic because there is opportunity here.”

He encouraged the audience of business leaders and researchers to get behind age-related initiatives. “This is not what the cool kids are working on right now and that is fantastic because there is opportunity here. You don’t want to go to a party that’s already started: You want to start the party. Silicon Valley, with some exceptions, is not interested in older adults even though demographics are creating this insanely huge market. In years to come, Canada could absolutely be a leader in that market and I hope everyone here will help to prove me right.”

Disruptive technologies designed to improve lives

This notion of listening to older adults and designing products that speak to their wants and needs is at the core of AGE-WELL, Canada’s technology and aging network.

Dr. Alex Mihailidis. Photo: Michelle Quance

“Often entrepreneurs don’t understand the audience they are trying to design for,” co-scientific director Dr. Alex Mihailidis told conference participants (Read: Age Well Volunteers Shape Real-World Solutions for an Aging Population). He points to personal alarms—the ones with a huge help button that older adults are encouraged to hang on rope around their neck. “Eighty percent of people never wear them and it comes down to usability and stigma. We need products that are more innovative and exciting and more useful at the end of the day.”

He sees three promising areas—smart homes, robots and big data—and explained how a couch with sensor can monitor ECG or blood pressure, without having to put on a blood pressure cuff, social robots to prompt people with dementia perform daily tasks (Read: Dr. Goldie Nejat Builds Socially Assistive Robots for an Aging Population) or activity monitoring in the home that can predict changes in health (i.e., a risk of falling) before they occur.

“Our goal must be to develop disruptive technologies that can enable aging in place and to support caregivers and families,” says Dr. Mihailidis.

Chris Wynn and Ron Beleno. Photo: Michelle Quance

Speakers Chris Wynn (Read: Much Too Young Documentary Explore the Untold Story of Young Caregivers) and Ron Beleno were on hand to provide the audience with a caregiver’s perspective. The duo talked about the realities of having a parent with Alzheimer’s, be it concerns about wandering, taking pills on time, navigating stairs in public places and even changing kitty litter. The right products and services can make a difference to everyone’s quality of life.

“Solving these problems requires a collaborative and transdisciplinary approach. The door is wide open for Canada to step up.”

“Solving these problems requires a collaborative and transdisciplinary approach. The door is wide open for Canada to step up,” says Dr. Mihailidis, adding companies need to shift focus to their future customer and anticipate the requirements of a population living longer.

In many cases, we are not talking about medical devices, but consumer-friendly technologies. He points to Best Buy’s Assured Living service (not yet here) that includes 24/7 emergency response and real-time notifications, about everything from sleep patterns and activities, which offer peace of mind to caregivers and enable people to live independently longer.

“We can all age well, even with impairments, with the proper supports in life,” he explains. For instance, the Ottawa-based AGE-WELL National Innovation Hub called Sensors and Analytics for Monitoring Mobility and Memory (SAM) brings together health professionals, researchers, industry, non-profits, older people and caregivers to develop smart home systems and other technologies that keep seniors as healthy, safe and independent as possible. SAM features an apartment laboratory resembling a typical home setting located at Élisabeth Bruyère Hospital and a design, development and test site at Carleton.

This is collaboration and innovation at its best and the world needs more of it.

Rise to the challenge

Canadian astronaut Dr. Dave Williams is author of a new book, Defying Limits. Photo: Michelle Quance

In his riveting closing keynote, Dr. Dave Williams , one of Canada’s most accomplished astronauts, as well as an aquanaut, jet pilot, ER doctor, scientist, CEO and cancer survivor, asked attendees to rise the challenge and be disrupters, to refuse to see limits and instead create solutions to help society in an evolving quest to age well with vitality and independence.

He linked his core message to lessons he learned during two trips to space. When shifting perceptions about aging, we must embrace the unknown to create opportunity and make a difference: “You realize we are, in fact, all in this together.”