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Gadgets for seniors: Ambitious techies roll out robots, smart gear for their elders

Seung Lee, The Mercury News on

Published in Business News

For older adults who grew up before the personal computer, iPhones and Amazon Echo became technological mainstays in everyday life, a growing number of startups are working on smart devices with features designed to keep aging minds and bodies healthy.

Personal-assistant robots such as the ElliQ and Cutii, smart shoes that signal a fall and even a smart hip-protection airbag -- all still in prototype and not yet available in the consumer market -- recently debuted at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, designed with features for aging people whose senses may no longer be pin sharp.

From technology-assisted home-care services such as Honor to hardware products such as grandPad's tablet for seniors, with a magnifying glass and simplified apps, businesses are seeking to tap into a booming population of older adults and help them tackle a critical challenge of modern aging: social isolation.

More than 8 million Americans over 50 are affected by isolation, which is a "growing health epidemic," according to Connect2Affect, an advocacy group launched by the American Association of Retired Persons to erase social isolation.

Social isolation -- feeling lonely and cut off from the world -- may accelerate many diseases, such as heart disease, and impair immune systems, according to research from the University of York in the United Kingdom and the University of Chicago. Researchers at Utah's Brigham Young University have suggested that the heightened risk of dying from social isolation is on par with smoking 15 cigarettes every day and being an alcoholic.

The number of Americans aged 65 or older is expected to nearly double in the next three decades. And as that population grows, the technology market catering to older adults is projected to grow to at least $20 billion in 2020, according to Laurie Orlov, a Florida-based analyst who specializes in technology for the elderly.

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Although many of the startups working on products for an older market are based overseas, Israel's ElliQ is testing its personal robot in the Bay Area and tablet-maker grandPad is headquartered in Orange, Calif.

While Silicon Valley venture capital firms Andreessen Horowitz, Battery Ventures and Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers don't have elderly-friendly device startups in their portfolios, they have invested in other businesses that help the elderly. San Francisco-based Honor, a personalized elderly care service with an app for scheduling services related to home care, has raised $20 million from Andreessen Horowitz and $42 million from Thrive Capital.

Yet, as companies jump into this burgeoning market, gerontologists are urging caution rather than rushing out tech products for the elderly. They say many of the startups, run by young entrepreneurs eager to serve a demographic often forgotten by the technology industry, do not always understand what older adults really want.

"There's no denying that we have a growing aging population and with that, there is a business opportunity," said Dr. Carla Perissinotto, an associate professor in geriatrics at UC San Francisco. "The devices are generally designed by younger folks, and many of the devices are very complicated to use. Unless they are going to be designed by or with elderly folks, there is a high chance for failure."

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