In San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood, Dorothy and Bill Dworsky are living out their golden years amid famed Italian restaurants, strip clubs and a bunch of cellular signals. The latter are emitted by Lively, a monitoring system in their apartment that alerts their son Phil if their activity pattern seems abnormal. Small, white sensors attached to such things as their pillboxes and refrigerator capture enough of their movement to assure Phil they’re eating regularly and taking their medications–without having to move them next door (to what 79-year-old Dorothy and 81-year-old Bill say is a far too boring residential neighborhood). “I was looking for something that would respect what my parents wanted to do: stay in their home,” Phil says. “But a lot of the things available were intrusive, things like video cameras. This was the right kind of compromise.”
It’s also the type of compromise that wasn’t available until last year. Lively, a San Francisco–based startup about to begin shipping a smart watch for seniors, is one of many new companies turning their attention to the over-65 crowd, an exploding demographic with plenty of problems for innovators to solve. “In the blink of an eye, we’ve had the doubling of human life spans,” says Ken Smith, a director at the Stanford Center on Longevity. By 2032, he adds, Americans over age 65 will outnumber those under age 15, which means that elders will be short on caregivers–not to mention that they will make up a huge chunk of the marketplace.
Nearly 90% of those over age 65 say they want to remain at home as long as possible, and many companies are trying to make it easier–or more pleasant–for them to live on their own. This summer a small company called Stitch launched a simple social network for seniors seeking companionship, trying to eliminate the loneliness that can lead to poor health. The company employs identity checks and opt-in messaging to protect users from fraudsters who trawl sites like Match.com.
Other companies are trying to make virtual connections and checkups easier. In September, Boston-based Oscar Tech launched two apps. Grandma downloads one of them, Oscar Senior, onto a tablet, and it condenses her operating system into a few basic functions like making video calls, and her grandson downloads the other, Oscar Junior, which allows him to manage her device remotely. Bay Area startup True Link Financial is offering a replacement for Grandma’s checkbook, a common target of swindlers. Its Visa debit card allows an older person’s child or caregiver to set limitations or get text-message alerts about suspicious activities, such as a $1,000 payment to QVC or a hefty cash withdrawal.
One reason tech companies have been slow to target older consumers’ needs is that entrepreneurs are often young and tend to solve problems they know firsthand. “In some ways it is seen as a less sexy space,” says Katy Fike, who runs startup accelerator Aging2.0. But she believes new sensor technology, the growing Internet of Things and awareness of how quickly the older population is expanding will push more disrupters into the space.
For now, the Dworskys are just glad to have one more tool between them and a conversation about leaving their neighborhood. “We just like to do things on our own,” Dorothy says. “And we can.”
This appears in the November 17, 2014 issue of TIME.
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