Image Courtesy of the Future of Aging, 2019.

Today, the stigma around being old is frequently reinforced, and we tend to think of older adults as passive actors, rather than active participants in the world. This stigma and prejudice informs how we understand, engage with, and design for this group … which will soon comprise ~20% of our population. 

Zayna Khayat, Future Strategist with SE Health, a Social Enterprise that provides health care services across various areas of the health system, including home, community and long-term care, is striving to change that perception. 

Last week, Zayna and her colleagues at SE Health launched The Future of Aging, a book penned in partnership with global strategic innovation and experience design firm Idea Couture. Its five chapters cover topics such as negotiating with age and the role of technology in daily life. The Future of Aging reframes aging, reimagines social norms around the aging process, and redefines what it means to age well.

Ahead of the book’s launch, we caught up with Zayna to talk about some of the misconceptions surrounding aging, the role of emerging technologies and the massive opportunities that lie in this largely untapped market. 

From your research for this book and with SE Health, what are some of the biggest myths and misconceptions about aging?

One of the biggest myths is that there is a clear line in the sand that says that you’re now old. Depending on the lens, “old” may be 55, 65 or 75. The reality now is that “old age” is a fluid construct. And, when you are in one part of the spectrum, it does not mean you are going to be in it forever. For instance, one may need support for several weeks, but uprooting their whole house to move to a full time residential support facility might not make sense as a permanent move.

man using smart watch

Image courtesy of The Future of Aging, 2019.

In your work with SingularityU Canada, you often talk about the shift to people-powered healthcare, in which patients come to have greater power and control. How does this translate to the older population? 

It all comes down to agency. Aging isn’t done to you, whereby you become someone powerless, useless and passively accepting what transpires biologically and sociologically, whether this be healthcare services you receive, work you can do, or housing available to you. Rather, it is about having agency over one’s own aging process; that is, aging on your own terms. For some people, this may involve running marathons at 103 years old; for others it may be taking a chapter from Golden Girls and co-owning a condo with two other widowed women; and for others still, it might mean getting support in a retirement home. 

There are also risks if you don’t go after these opportunities – if we continue to design for the past instead of the future, we’re not actually optimizing our investments in these public goods. – Zayna Khayat, Future Strategist, SE Health

What role will emerging technologies play in people-powered healthcare?  

Progress in the area of gerontechnologies, an area rooted in life extension technologies, is now broadened to include a wide array of emerging technologies that augment and extend life and living. This is a key field in which Singularity University’s Exponential Medicine stream focuses. The emerging tools are going to be unlike anything we have seen in the past, such as vaccines to eradicate common diseases such as cancers and Alzheimer’s, and also tools that make previously inaccessible experiences (such as exercise, socializing, gaming, mobility) newly accessible in meaningful and engaging ways. 

In [The Future of Aging], we go deep into tools that extend independence, autonomy and agency. Previously, as soon as an older individual required some level of support, that would tip the scales and they would lose their ability to own/drive a car, or live in their home. Now, a lot of technologies can keep an individual at home longer, thereby maximizing independence, autonomy, agency and safety.

teaching elderly man to use ipad

Image courtesy of The Future of Aging, 2019.

Another emerging technology that we highlight is necrotechnology. Just like every aspect of the aging process is starting to be redefined, the ultimate end of the game is death, and we are still extremely taboo about this in many parts of today’s society. Very little has changed in terms of the funeral model (i.e. burial in a casket with the body stuffed with formaldehyde). All of this is going to change, as new experiences and service models enabled by necrotechnologies are reimagining every aspect of the life-limiting stage, from how you die, how you memorialize, what you do with the body after death, and also some really interesting ways to keep an individual’s presence alive, using virtual reality and voice technologies.   

How does Canada fare, in comparison to other countries’ approach to aging? 

In Canada, we largely know what we see that is in front of us, whereas other jurisdictions are constantly looking out to bring in the most relevant and current tools and approaches. This applies to products, services and policies alike.

Western societies have decided that the way to deal with those who are no longer deemed useful is to warehouse them (i.e. nursing homes). Yet, other societies such as the Netherlands and Finland have designed their cities to fully integrate all ages, and it would have been unheard of to construct buildings to warehouse old people. In Canada, the daily headlines often emphasize the need to build vastly more long-term care buildings and beds. 

In Japan, robots in the home help individuals with daily activities, yet also offer social companionship and even basic care services. These robots are viewed as an extension of the health and caring workforce. In North America, there are taboos surrounding the perception that machines should not (and cannot) replace care workers. This shows how much society’s readiness affects the speed at which these gerontechnologies will become mainstream.

elderly adults taking a photo

Image courtesy of The Future of Aging, 2019.

What are the biggest opportunities in the aging space?

There is a massive opportunity to create a new set of products and services that nobody imagined would exist. It’s all about opportunity – you can really thrive if you go after this segment, in an intelligent way.

There are many brands that exist for the younger market, but not so much for the elderly. For instance, think about the aisles at Shopper’s Drug Mart for youth, versus the elderly. The aging department and division will soon become an aspirational destination for shoppers. I don’t know who is going to crack this nut, though I think it will be a mixture of incumbents, such as Amazon, Walmart and Best Buy, and also a lot of new entrants. 

There are also risks if you don’t go after these opportunities – if we continue to design for the past instead of the future, we’re not actually optimizing our investments in these public goods. For this population, it is particularly important, as there is some loss and heightened vulnerability. Just like you would never shortchange kids, I think that sentiment for this segment is going to start to grow. 

Want to hear more from Zayna? In her session at the upcoming SingularityU Canada Banff 2020 Executive Program, this May 11 – 14, Zayna will examine the future of health(care), the exponential changes that lie on the horizon, and what this means for us, as users of the health system, business leaders and citizens.