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Come Meet Those Who Gather at the Intersection of Technology and Aging

There’s no question that technology can make our life simpler, especially as we age. The problem is most applications are designed by developers far too young to truly understand the needs of their aging user. Diane’s special guest expert this week, Dr. Richard Caro, and his merry band of Longevity Explorers are changing all that. Learn what apps Eighty-somethings think are the “Bees Knees” and take a peek into the future of surprising new ways technology will help us to age more gracefully.

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Show Transcript

Parents Are Hard To Raise® S03 Episode 120 Transcript

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Announcer [00:00:37] There's no question that technology can make our life simpler, especially as we age. The problem is most applications are designed by developers far too young to truly understand the needs of their aging user. Diane's special guest expert this week, Dr. Richard Caro, and his merry band of Longevity Explorers are changing all that.

[00:01:00] Join 180 million monthly subscribers who can now listen to a Parents Are Hard To Raise on Spotify.

Diane Berardi [00:01:18] Welcome to Parents Are Hard To Raise. Helping families grow older together without losing their minds. I'm elder care expert Diane Berardi.

[00:01:28] Have you ever noticed that the older we get the less advertisers tend to think about us? From the radio and television ads targeting those north of 50, it's as if marketers think all we care about are fiber supplements, laxatives, and erectile dysfunction cures. Maybe it's because when it comes to developing truly useful products for an aging market most designers are "all gear and no idea.".

[00:01:56] My guest expert this week is just the opposite. He leads a group of developers who know more about what an aging population wants and needs than just about any other group. Maybe because they are their target market.

[00:02:13] Dr. Richard Caro has over 30 years of experience at the intersection of technology and business. He is co-founder of Tech Enhanced Life, PBC, a public benefit corporation with a mission of improving the quality of life for older adults and their families. Born and raised in Australia, Richard holds degrees from Melbourne University, and a doctorate in experimental physics from Oxford University where he was a Rhodes Scholar. Dr Richard Caro, welcome to Parents Are Hard To Raise.

Dr. Richard Caro [00:02:43] Thank you Diane. I'm looking forward to talking with you.

Diane Berardi [00:02:46] Well, we're looking forward to hear all about this amazing group of yours. Tell us about it.

Dr. Richard Caro [00:02:52] Well it is quite unusual. You know, we started it several years ago because we had this opinion that the technology now is so advanced that there ought to be able to be lots of really useful products to help us all as we grow older and sort of push off the time at which various kind of things going wrong with you get in the way of living life, right. That was our theory.

[00:03:19] But we noticed that the products didn't seem to be coming to market. And as we started to talk to older adults about this we realised that no one was asking their opinion. And also, all these older adults that we met, they really wanted a way to be more engaged in the future and in their world.

[00:03:46] And so we started this kind of club called the Longevity Explorers, really to try and impact the situation and help more good products come to market.

Diane Berardi [00:03:54] It's fantastic, because it's true. We we don't get opinions from the elderly and they're the ones who need and use the products and they're made by younger people. So I think this is a great idea.

Dr. Richard Caro [00:04:09] Well, we think so. You know it sort of came about because initially our club was really about discussing ideas and looking at new products and things. And after we'd been doing it for a couple of years, the explorers who were all in this sort of 70s, 80s, 90s, we even have a couple in their hundreds.

Diane Berardi [00:04:28] Wow.

Dr. Richard Caro [00:04:29] Yep. You know they started saying things to me like, You know Richard, we've tried all these products and they're mostly bad. And, Isn't there something we could do about that, you know, instead of waiting till they exist and then testing them out and commenting how they're really not that useful? We want to get involved early on, they said. And so we are.

Diane Berardi [00:04:50] And I guess it's everyday products?

Dr. Richard Caro [00:04:55] Well it's a very broad range. You know we... There's some really interesting sort of sexy things we've helped with, like robots and stuff. And none of which have quite got to market yet. But also our explorers are very interested in things like Jar openers to help you open jars when you have arthritis or you know as some sort of weakness in grip. And a whole variety of things like that that we call everyday objects.

Diane Berardi [00:05:24] Yeah, I even have trouble opening jars and they just have those rubber things. [laughing]

Dr. Richard Caro [00:05:31] Well it's interesting. You know it turns out this was one of the first products we looked into because at one of our explorer meetings one of the ladies said, You know I just bought this jar opener and it's terrible. And I really want to bring it along next time and tell everyone how bad it is. And then someone else piped up and said, But I've got a really good one I want to bring that along. And so at the next month that you know everybody brought along their little plastic bag full of products. And we tried them all out. And then we went out and bought all of the good ones we could find that were well reviewed on Amazon and designed as sort of more systematic way of testing it. And what we found was really interesting.

[00:06:11] We found that quite a lot of them aren't very good, but some of them are really fabulous, actually. And there is a broader range than just those rubber ones available.

[00:06:20] But the trouble is there is no really good way to know. And so we've written all that up and put it on the Tech Enhanced Life website. And now older adults from all around the world when they Google you know a jar opener and arthritis or something,they come and read what our explorers think about why product A is better than product B. And even more importantly than that, it turns out different people have different reasons they need specific products. And so you know it explains a lot too.

Diane Berardi [00:06:50] Yeah. That's great. When I was on your Web site and you talk about falls and there are a lot of things you know for fall prevention but then it's also how to get up.

Dr. Richard Caro [00:07:02] Yes absolutely.

[00:07:04] You know there's this fabulous video on our Website made by an occupational therapist who you know... The way our community works a lot of it is you know experts who who want to tell people what they've learned and share things. And so this lady made a great video about clever ways to get up off the floor after you've fallen over. If for various reasons you aren't able to just get up under your own steam and it's very popular.

[00:07:30] Yeah. It's a great idea. I mean we have those you know emergency buttons that people wear, but I can't tell you how many clients I have who they might be outside in the yard and they fall, and they'll lay there for hours until their neighbor comes by, and they're wearing the emergency response system necklace or watch and I'll say, Well why didn't you press the button? "Well I didn't get hurt. I fell." [laughing] So I know, it's crazy.

Dr. Richard Caro [00:08:04] It is. You know anecdotally you hear that a lot of people who have those buttons keep them in their bedside table, too, because they're so ugly and sort of stigmatizing.

Diane Berardi [00:08:13] Yes. My father. I got one for him and I'm saying, But it doesn't do any good in your... You have to wear it. "Well I'm charging it." Well...

[00:08:24] I know my father also... For my mom. She wants a ramp to get out of the house. You know my father keeps saying, We don't need a ramp. He's afraid you know with the wheelchair, he'll not be able to get her down the ramp with this wheelchair, that she's just going to go sailing. So he says to me... He's standing out there one day and he's looking and I'm thinking oh my gosh he's thinking I could tell by that expression and he says to me, I'm trying to devise a pulley system. [laughing].

Dr. Richard Caro [00:08:54] You know he would fit right in with our explorer group because they love having new ideas. There's always good new ideas that come up in the discussions. It's fun.

Diane Berardi [00:09:03] Yeah I can imagine. And you know it's sad because we do... I had talked about this on one show about advertisers. We do, we push... We kind of push the elderly to the side and we don't think they have anything to offer or we don't think they have all this experience and they know what what would help them, but...

Dr. Richard Caro [00:09:24] Absolutely. Can I tell you a little story about that/.

Diane Berardi [00:09:26] Yes please.

Dr. Richard Caro [00:09:27] You know when we first started getting interested in this area we we went out and interviewed lots of older adults to try and understand you know what people cared about and what they thought the challenges were and stuff. And I just remember so well one interview we had with a lady who was, she was 92, and she lived in Marin, outside San Francisco. And she came to the interview with us with somebody to help her get there because she was physically a bit frail. But mentally completely on the ball. You know she went out every day. She took a photo of something and then she wrote a little paragraph or two about what she took the photo of and posted it on her own blog. And she was 92, right. So this is not your stereotype ninety-two year old.

Diane Berardi [00:10:12] No.

Dr. Richard Caro [00:10:13] But anyway. So we had this great interview and she told me all sorts of useful things. But then at the end she said, You know, the thing I miss most about growing older is I miss being useful.

Diane Berardi [00:10:26] Yeah.

Dr. Richard Caro [00:10:27] And I hadn't heard that before you know. But now I've learned a lot. And I've decided this is one of the really most important aspects. Society's kind of decided that this group of people you know there's not a role for them really they should be playing bingo or whatever. And so that's one of the reasons we started the explorers actually because in our own small way where we like to think that our members you know we're doing something useful and there's a sense of camaraderie and all that stuff. And to be honest it seems to work quite well. It's exciting.

Diane Berardi [00:10:58] You know it must be such a great feeling for these explorers because they're getting out, they're being useful, they're with other people. It's got all the components of what I'm always preaching that people have to socialize, and use their minds. So it's wonderful.

Dr. Richard Caro [00:11:16] Yeah. We sometimes help companies with some specific projects, right. And we did one last year where we put together a group of our explorers and went to this company and you know help them... Helped their engineers with their product development. And at the end of one of the sessions... Was so interesting, there was this kind of, half the room was full of 20 or 30 year old developers and the other half was full of my 80 and 90 year old explorers, and they by the end they had just completely changed their point of view about each other. Right?

Diane Berardi [00:11:51] Yeah.

Dr. Richard Caro [00:11:51] That the designers were suddenly realizing that all these older people have really something to offer. And one of the explorers said to me as she left, she said, You know this was so good. They were all just sitting there listening to everything I said. That just every word I said they were writing down and they really cared about what I had to say. So she felt that was great.

Diane Berardi [00:12:15] That is great. I love that intergenerational mixing.

Dr. Richard Caro [00:12:20] Me too.

[00:12:20] Oh it really is. And it's... I can just imagine the faces of the explorers, feeling you know that somebody is listening to them and that what they have to say is worthwhile.

Dr. Richard Caro [00:12:33] Yeah. Well not only that, when we do you know a lot of what we do is kind of our club aspect which doesn't have any sort of financial aspects to it. But the when we go to help companies we think that what we do is really valuable and so to the companies and the companies pay and the explorers you know take some money home at the end. So they don't just feel good about it they actually get paid for their work, which I think is appropriate.

Diane Berardi [00:12:55] That's great.

Dr. Richard Caro [00:12:57] Yeah. It is.

Diane Berardi [00:12:58] What kind of companies and the products they have request the explorers?

Dr. Richard Caro [00:13:04] Well the exact details I can't talk about just because you know they're still in development and confidential and all of that. But we've worked with quite a few companies now, and they range from tiny little startups you know, so here in Silicon Valley that might be one to 10 people. You know we we've done some with one person in the garage, the typical thing. But then we've done some projects with humongous companies, you know household name type companies, which I wish I could tell you their names but I'm not supposed to. But, you know, the sort of huge companies you hear about every day. And you know both of those are interesting. They're very different types of projects, but both a lot of fun.

Diane Berardi [00:13:46] Now, how do you become a member?

Dr. Richard Caro [00:13:49] Well we started with, we call them "circles," the groups of explorers. We started with several circles in Northern California, that I personally run. And then more recently we've got a sort of slightly different model that involves helping to get started new Explorer circles in other parts of the country. And so we have now one in Providence Rhode Island and one in Cincinnati and several others. And those are started by a small group of older adults who kind of feel like they would like to lead their own explorers circle. And we train them and all the circles interact. And so, if you happen to live where there's already a circle, you just have to contact us through our website and you know we'll introduce you to them.

[00:14:37] But if someone listening thinks they would like to start their own circle somewhere again just contact us through the website we're actively trying to help with that at the moment.

Diane Berardi [00:14:48] That's great. And what is your Web site?

Dr. Richard Caro [00:14:52] So the name of the entity behind all this is Tech Enhanced Life as you mentioned in your introduction. And so the Web site is www.techenhancedlife.com.

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Announcer [00:17:17] You're listening to Parents Are Hard To Raise. Now... Thanks to you, the number one eldercare talk show on planet Earth. Listen to this and other episodes on demand using the iHeart Radio app. iPhone users can listen on Apple podcasts and Android users on Google podcast.

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[00:18:38] So Richard, I was curious. Your longevity explorers are they mostly male? Female?

Dr. Richard Caro [00:18:45] There's a mix actually. It's more women than men, which reflects the fact that once you get in your 80s and 90s that's kind of how it works. There seem to be more women than men. But what people often tell us is there are far more men that come to our explorer groups than come the most things of that age group. So we have more women than men, but you know plenty of men, too.

Diane Berardi [00:19:10] Yeah. I bet there's relationships that develop, you know, from these groups or relationships.

Dr. Richard Caro [00:19:20] That's a that's an interesting word isn't it? I see them once a month. You know for a couple of hours in our meeting of course. But what I do notice is that you know some of these groups have been going on for four years now. Right. Every month we meet and take a month or two off over the summer. But what I have noticed is that there are people who have been coming ever since the beginning, so for years. And because what we talk about in our discussions is... You know we usually get into quite a lot of depth about stuff. We don't just talk about gadgets we talk about ideas and things like how to stay in touch with your estranged daughter who doesn't want to talk to you anymore, you know all sorts of issues like.

Diane Berardi [00:19:59] Wow OK.

Dr. Richard Caro [00:20:01] And so the members just get really comfortable talking to each other about these quiet... Quiet, I don't know, personal things.

Diane Berardi [00:20:10] Yeah.

Dr. Richard Caro [00:20:11] And there's no question that they start to feel like they're... You know it's a club, they feel like they belong. So I don't know if that's the sort of relationships you are thinking of, but there's definitely a kind of bonding that happens there.

Diane Berardi [00:20:20] Yeah. That's I think that's what I was thinking. You know that they'll bond because they get to know each other and they have a common purpose, and then they feel comfortable with each other.

Dr. Richard Caro [00:20:32] Exactly. It actually has made me think about something to do with social isolation and loneliness which are often talked about as big challenges for people these days.

Diane Berardi [00:20:42] Yes. Yes.

Dr. Richard Caro [00:20:43] Of all generations actually. But, you know I've started to realize that when you have something like these groups which are what I call an affinity group where you're there for to do something together but not just to chit chat. You know there's a purpose. I think they allow a different sort of person to meet and engage with new people, than the sort of person who likes cocktail parties. Right?

Diane Berardi [00:21:08] Yes.

Dr. Richard Caro [00:21:09] There's lots of kind of social events that exist already, but there's a bit of a limited number of places where you can go and really engage with people about a topic of mutual interest. And I think that's perhaps a really interesting way to think about this whole issue of loneliness.

[00:21:27] Yeah it definitely is. You have all the components of what an elderly person needs.

[00:21:35] Yeah. It's not just our group. I was sort of actually wanting to make an even slightly broader point, which is I think that you know in theory you could imagine a whole range of different affinity groups.

Diane Berardi [00:21:45] Yeah.

Dr. Richard Caro [00:21:45] When one of our explorers was telling me that he, he's 90 something 92 I think, and he goes to a reunion of his... Of the military unit that he belonged to in I guess it would have been the second world war. And you could just tell when he when he was telling us about that, that you know those were fond memories and he liked to go and bond with those people but he only did it once a year because it involved a long distance.

Diane Berardi [00:22:12] Yeah.

Dr. Richard Caro [00:22:12] Now that's starting to be some interesting technologies that maybe let you do that from your house. And so I think that whole idea of bonding with people with a common interest rather than just because you're the same age or it's just a social event. I think that's got a lot of potential.

Diane Berardi [00:22:27] Yeah it definitely does. Have you seen any technology trends that have the potential to improve the life of an older person or their family?

[00:22:38] Yes there's quite a few actually. And, would you like me to tell you about some of them?

Diane Berardi [00:22:43] Oh yeah definitely.

Dr. Richard Caro [00:22:45] Let me just preface it by saying that I think these are kind of trends.

[00:22:48] I think it would be premature to say that the perfect product quite exist yet but you can see where they're going right. Which I think is really encouraging.

[00:22:56] And actually there was some... There are several I'd like to mention.

[00:23:02] So the first one is the ridesharing services called Uber or Lyft.

Diane Berardi [00:23:10] Right.

Dr. Richard Caro [00:23:11] And you know they're not specifically designed for older adults of course, but as we've helped older adults in our Explorer community learn how to use them, we suddenly realize that they're incredibly important. Because you know if you're 20 and you're choosing between going on public transport or in your own car perhaps or a taxi or Uber you know it's just one more choice right. But if you're 85 or 90, and you aren't allowed to drive anymore for some reason which happens to a lot of people at some point. Then suddenly now your choices used to be you could stay home or you could wait till your children came to visit and would like to take you somewhere. Or you could reserve the kind of paratransit van that would come kind of at the convenience of a friendly social worker you know and go to one of several places that you were allowed to go to but not necessarily exactly what you wanted to go to. Or now you can someone a car at your convenience and go wherever you want to. So it's kind of transformed their sense of being in control. And that's really important.

Diane Berardi [00:24:18] It definitely is.

Dr. Richard Caro [00:24:20] So that's one of the more exciting applications I think.

Diane Berardi [00:24:23] Yeah. There's so many different applications that you don't even realize what you're doing with these longevity explorers.

[00:24:32] Shall I tell you about another one?

Diane Berardi [00:24:33] Yes, please do.

Dr. Richard Caro [00:24:35] So maybe two years ago now, one of our explorers at our club meetings the beginning of it is always people bring the topics they want to talk about and then we kind of talk about a community wide topic. So one of the explorers said I really want to tell you about this new product I bought called...

[00:24:58] Sorry I just had to turn off my version of it. It's called Alexa. And I didn't want mine to start talking in the background. [laughing] [00:25:05] And you know no one really knew what this product was except this lady who's I don't know quite how old she is. Probably in her 80s. And she just waxed really eloquently about how fantastic this product was this voice enabled assistant called Alexa that she'd bought, and she liked to talk to it, and it would tell her jokes, and she had a whole range of things she told us about. And this was maybe two years ago. And since then I've noticed that you know every few months someone else says, Well I just got one of these. And and they use them for all sorts of different things, but there's some there's definitely this quite a large fraction of the people in our group who think it's really useful.

[00:25:49] And then recently we tried out a newer version that still has that artificial intelligence in it. The same Alexa, but now has a screen on it. And it lets you make video calls to other people in an incredibly simple and convenient way. This is not meant to be an advertisement by the way. I don't get... [laughing] No one compensates me for saying this... But anyway we were just really impressed by it. Because I think video interaction is great. But most of the existing ones are just a little bit tricky for some people to use. Whereas this new kind of artificial intelligence you just say, call John. And the next thing you know you're looking at your friend John on the screen and talking to them. So I think that's pretty powerful.

Diane Berardi [00:26:29] Oh yeah. That's great.

Dr. Richard Caro [00:26:32] We liked it.

Diane Berardi [00:26:33] What other products?

Dr. Richard Caro [00:26:40] Okay. This is good. I could go on all... I don't want to go on too much but I could tell you about.

[00:26:45] I'll tell you another area that I think is really interesting.

[00:26:47] You mentioned a bit earlier the whole medical alert thing, the buttons where you press them, and they sort of work quite well. But you know people don't like them and they don't always press them. And mostly they're kind of ugly and stigmatizing is an issue. Anyway we've done a lot of work on those just because a lot of people do want them and it's hard to decide which one to buy.

[00:27:09] But more recently we've discovered that there's a class of new consumer electronics, and an Apple Watch is a perfect example. But there are other ones, which are starting to incorporate many of those features of those medical alerts in what you would think of as just an elegant stylish piece of consumer electronics. And so I think where you see that going is this this kind of intersection of consumer electronics of the wearable sort of category with these what used to be kind of "old person" products. And you know once you can get an Apple Watch and it's cheaper and better then the button, you have to ask why do you want the button?

Diane Berardi [00:27:51] Right. Right.

[00:27:53] You had mentioned robots before.

[00:27:58] Yes.

Diane Berardi [00:27:58] I'm interested. What is the reaction? You know I wonder about that. You know with an older person, how did they feel about a robot?

[00:28:08] Yes that's a very broad topic, isn't it? And I think it depends a lot what sort of robot you're talking about. And what we found is our explorers actually are quite excited about the general concept of robots. But within that excitement there's there are camps, right? There's a camp of super excited no matter what. [laughing] There's a camp with like, Oh... No no no. And then there's a bunch of stuff in between.

[00:28:37] And so if you know if you talk about the sort of robot that cleans your floor, or makes your bed, or cooks your dinner, there's general enthusiasm about that, I have to tell you. Not that they quite exist to do all those things yet. But most of the explorers think that would be fun and useful. Although this kind of the counter point of view which some of them have which is that, Well, we need to do some exercise. You know if we just sit in a chair and the robot does everything for us that's not good either. So it's kind of a bit mixed but generally it's pretty enthusiastic, I think. The sort of robot that actually takes care of you and replaces a person?

Diane Berardi [00:29:18] Yes.

Dr. Richard Caro [00:29:19] Is that what you were thinking of?

Diane Berardi [00:29:19] Yeah. I was thinking, yeah, you know hands on caregiver you know being replaced by a robot.

Dr. Richard Caro [00:29:24] Right. Right right. Well that's more tricky. You know we haven't seen anything close to that yet, so we haven't done a lot of work with them. But when the discussion comes up I think the way people think is it would of course been better to have a nice friendly person. I think everyone agrees with that.

Diane Berardi [00:29:41] Yeah.

Dr. Richard Caro [00:29:43] However if the choice is between sitting at home with no one looking after you staring at the wall or having some sort of robot that might do some of the things that a nice friendly person could do, then actually the robot would be better than nothing. So I think it's all a question of, What's the alternative?

Diane Berardi [00:29:59] Yeah. And someone to talk to.

Dr. Richard Caro [00:30:03] Well you know people, a lot of our explorers think Alexa is a great person to talk to. And it's a sort of robot right.

Diane Berardi [00:30:09] Yes.

Dr. Richard Caro [00:30:09] I think that... One of the lady who first introduced it. She's very fond of saying, "Alexa is my friend." And you know that's an interesting point of view.

[00:30:19] It is. But you know, it's a it's a voice it's... She answers questions, Alexa. Right?

Dr. Richard Caro [00:30:27] Yeah. She does.

Diane Berardi [00:30:30] I was trying to show my mom, Siri, I think it was. And she would call me and say, "I wanted to ask Siri something but you know I didn't want to bother the woman at 10 o'clock at night. I said, (you know to my dad) Joe we can't call her now." [laughing]

Dr. Richard Caro [00:30:49] Yeah.

Diane Berardi [00:30:50] So yeah I think a lot of people do find comfort in Alexa.

Dr. Richard Caro [00:30:58] I think so. Yeah. And it's still got so far to go, too. So you can see, it's just scratching the surface.

Diane Berardi [00:31:04] Oh definitely. And Richard give us your our Web site again.

Dr. Richard Caro [00:31:09] WWW.techenhancedlife.com.

Diane Berardi [00:31:14] Thank you so much for being here and sharing all this information with us.

Dr. Richard Caro [00:31:17] My pleasure. My pleasure.

Diane Berardi [00:31:19] Diane Parents Are Hard To Raise family, I love getting your e-mails and questions, so please keep sending them in. You can reach me at Diane at Parents Are Hard To Raise dot org or just click the green button on our home page.

[00:31:31] Parents Are Hard to Raise is a CounterThink Media production. The music used in this broadcast was managed by Cosmo Music, New York, New York. Our New York producer is Joshua Green. Our broadcast engineer is Well Gambino. And from our London studios the melodic voice of our announcer, Miss Dolly D.

[00:31:48] We love our parents but parents sure are hard to raise. Thank you so much for listening. Till next time... May you forget everything you don't want to remember and remember everything you don't want to forget. See you again next week!

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