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

July 8, 2014

Katy Fike wants to find out how technology can help older people stay healthy and happy.

To do that, she co-founded a company called Aging 2.0 that helps develop tech products for older people. To find out what those clients need, Her dad Frank Thomas, who is now 80 years old, has become her full-time focus group of one.

“I’m the guinea pig,” Thomas says, laughing. “It’s a lot of fun and it’s challenging.”

Lately he’s been testing out a monitoring device called Lively. It’s a white sensor about the length of a guitar pick that’s stuck to a door of the cupboard where Thomas keeps his coffee.

The device can tell when Thomas opens and closes the cupboard, and it sends that data to a website that Fike, who lives hundreds of miles away from her parents’ home in Long Beach, Calif., can access on her smartphone.

“Every time I open this door for coffee in the morning, it’s saying ‘Good morning, Katy,’ ” Thomas says. 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 pill boxes.

“If she sees I’m not taking my medicine on time, she calls me up and asks me what’s going on,” Thomas says.

Actually, despite all those medicines and a couple of hearing aids, Thomas is getting on just fine. Right now, Lively is just fun to play with. But that may not last, he says. Someday the device could help his kids keep an eye on him.

Family caregivers could really use an assist from technology. With family size shrinking, there are fewer kids to take care of a rapidly growing number of elderly people. Aging 2.0, based in San Francisco, advises start-ups that develop tech products for older adults.

Many of these tech companies are staffed with really young developers, Fike says. So her company does research and works with focus groups of older adults to figure out what they really want and need.

At one focus group, the topic of discussion was a website called Stitch. The site, founded by 28-year-old Marcie Rodrigo, is designed to help older adults connect with each other for activities and companionship, and just maybe for romance “Please don’t feel afraid to be completely honest and critical,” Rodrigo tells the group.

And everyone took her at her word. Theya started with the name.

“What does the term suggest to you?” Fike asks them.

“Somebody who has had surgery,” someone pipes up. Giggles ensue.

This is the kind of input that Aging 2.0 needs to help promising startups find the mentors and the money that will get them into the marketplace. In exchange, Aging 2.0 gets a small stake in the companies it helps. The focus group gets pastries and gratitude.

Fike, 35, has a PhD in gerontology and cofounded the company after leaving a job in finance. 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.”

Fike says she wants to expand on what Aging 2.0 is doing, and has set up a nationwide network of older consumers willing to provide 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 the elderly.

“One of the things we’re trying to figure out now,” she says, “is how can we tap into the wisdom of older adults.”

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

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