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4:12 pm
Tue July 8, 2014

Will This Tech Tool Help Manage Older People's Health? Ask Dad

Originally published on Wed July 9, 2014 11:39 am

Aging 2.0 may not sound like the hippest start-up in San Francisco, but it's part of an industry worth $2 billion and growing fast — technology to help older adults.

Katy Fike, 35, is the company's co-founder. She's devoted to making sure that older adults who are supposed to use the products are involved in their development.

That's especially important, because the creators of tech startups tend to be much younger than the intended users of their products. "One of the things that we're most passionate about," says Fike, "is making sure these entrepreneurs, many of whom are in their 20s and 30s, are really getting important feedback on what their end-users want and need."

One of those entrepreneurs is 28-year-old Marcie Rogo. She's starting a website called Stitch. It's designed to help older adults connect with each other for activities and companionship and — just maybe — for romance.

So Rogo and Fike assembled a group of people between the ages of 56 and 84 to tell them what they thought. Rogo told the group not to hold back. "Please don't feel afraid to be completely honest and critical," she told them.

And they took her at her word, starting with the name. "Why Stitch?" asked one of the group members. Fike asked what the term suggested. The answer, "Someone who's had surgery," was greeted with knowing laughter.

Fike says that Aging 2.0 doesn't develop products for older adults, but it works with start-ups that do. In exchange for helping them find support and financing, Aging 2.0 gets a small stake in the companies it helps.

And all along, Fike's full-time, go-to focus group of one has been her 80-year-old father, Frank Thomas. She sends him all kinds of gizmos to try out in his home in Long Beach, Calif.

One that he likes a lot is called Lively. It's a bunch of sensors that transmit data to a web page that both he and his daughter can access from their smartphones. The sensors are on his pill container, his car keys and the kitchen cupboard where he keeps his coffee.

Thomas says he doesn't feel spied on at all. In fact, he sees Lively as another way to communicate with his daughter. "I make coffee first thing in the morning," he explains. Every time he opens the cupboard, he says, "it's saying 'Good morning, Katy.' "

It's also saying that Dad's keeping to his normal routine. "If she sees I'm not taking my medicine on time, she calls me up and asks me what's going on," Thomas says.

Fike has a PhD in gerontology, which is her second career. She used to work for Lehman Brothers in New York. Her office was just across from the World Trade Center, and she was there during the 9/11 attacks. "The work I had thought was so important suddenly didn't matter at all," she says. "I knew in the pit of my stomach that I wanted the work I did to matter more, not less."

And it will matter more. With family size shrinking, there are fewer kids to take care of a rapidly growing number of elderly people.

So they will need an assist from technology.

That's why Fike wants to expand on what Aging 2.0 is doing. She'd like to set up a nationwide network of older consumers willing to share their insights. That may not make money in itself. But it could be the key to creating the next big thing to improve the lives of older adults.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Aging2.0 may not sound like the hippest tech company in San Francisco, but it's part of an industry worth an estimated $2 billion. And that number is growing. Entrepreneurs of all ages want a share of the market. They're designing devices and apps aimed at keeping seniors happy, healthy and safe. NPR's Ina Jaffe covers aging and has this report about the way Aging2.0 gets older adults involved in that product development.

KATY FIKE: This is a perfect start. Maybe we should just get going with introductions.

INA JAFFE, BYLINE: That's Katy Fike, the co-founder of Aging2.0. In a San Francisco conference room, she welcomes a focus group of about a dozen older adults, mostly women. Fike explains that Aging2.0 doesn't develop products for older people, but they work with start-ups that do. And some of those developers are really young.

FIKE: And one of the things that we're most passionate about is making sure that these entrepreneurs, many of whom are in their 20s and 30s, are really getting important feedback on what their end users really want and need.

JAFFE: Today's topic is a website called Stitch. It's designed to help older adults connect with each other for activities and companionship and just maybe for romance. Twenty-eight-year-old Marcie Rogo is the founder.

MARCIE ROGO: Please don't feel afraid to be completely honest and critical.

JAFFE: And they took her at her word. Starting with a name.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I wanted to inquire as to the name. Why Stitch?

FIKE: Actually before you say why, what that brings up to you - the term?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Somebody's who had surgery.

JAFFE: This is the kind of input that Aging2.0 needs to help promising startups find the mentors and the money that'll get them into the marketplace. In exchange, Aging2.0 gets a small stake in the companies it helps. The focus group gets pastry and gratitude.

FIKE: Thank you all so much. We really appreciate it so, so much.

ROGO: Thank you so much.

JAFFE: Katy Fike is 35 years old and has a Ph.D. in gerontology. But that wasn't always her field. She used to work in finance for Lehman Brothers in New York. Her office was just across from the World Trade Center. She was there on 9/11.

FIKE: I was right there and, you know, saw people jumping and - terrible and walked up the West Side Highway that morning before the Towers collapsed. And, you know, the work I'd thought was so important suddenly didn't matter really at all. And for me, in the pit of my stomach, I knew that I wanted to do something that mattered more when real life happened, not less.

JAFFE: But from Lehman Brothers to gerontology - for Fike that wasn't really a stretch.

DOROTHY THOMAS: She's always liked old people.

JAFFE: That's Fike's 73-year-old mom, Dorothy Thomas. Her father's name is Frank. He's 80.

FRANK THOMAS: She knew her grandmother and grandfather on Dorothy's side. And my mother lived here in her 90s. And she saw the difficulties of aging for old people. And she was very sympathetic to that.

JAFFE: Frank and Dorothy Thomas live in Long Beach, an hour south of Los Angeles and hundreds of miles from their daughter's home in San Francisco. Nevertheless, Frank Thomas is his daughter's full-time focus group of one.

F. THOMAS: Yes, I am the guinea pig. And it's a lot of fun and it's challenging.

JAFFE: For example, he's been using one of the products that Aging2.0 has work with called Lively.

F. THOMAS: This is the - this cover holds my coffee. So I make coffee first thing every morning, and there's my Lively.

JAFFE: It's a white sensor about the length of a guitar pick stuck to the cupboard door. It sends data to a website that Katy Fike can access on her smartphone.

F. THOMAS: Every time I open this door for the coffee in the morning then you go oh, it's saying good morning, Katy.

JAFFE: It's also saying that Dad's keeping to his normal routine. He also has a sensor on his car keys and on his very large pillboxes.

F. THOMAS: And then if she sees I'm not taking my medicine on time, she calls me up and asks me what's going on.

JAFFE: Actually, despite all those meds and a couple of hearing aids, Frank Thomas is getting on just fine. Right now, Lively is just fun to play with. But he knows that may not last.

F. THOMAS: Someday, where maybe that'll be an important part of, you know, my daily routine is to have it. So that the kids can keep an eye on me.

JAFFE: Family caregivers are going to need an assist from technology. With family size shrinking, there are fewer of them to care for a rapidly growing number of older adults. Katy Fike says that the feedback she gets from her father and from focus groups is invaluable. But there needs to be a lot more of it.

FIKE: One of the things that we're trying to figure out now is how can we tap into the wisdom of older adults and their thoughts about what's really needed? We think this model's great but I want it to be happening everywhere, constantly.

JAFFE: So she wants to set up a nation-wide network of older consumers willing to provide their insights. That may not make money in and of itself, but it could be the key to creating the next big thing to improve the lives of older adults. Ina Jaffe, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.