For Startups Marketing To Seniors, A Novel Idea: Move In With Them

Nov 12, 2016
Originally published on November 13, 2016 1:04 pm

The market for products designed specifically for older adults could reach $30 billion by next year, and startups want in on the action. What they sometimes lack is feedback from the people they hope will use their product. So Brookdale, the country's largest owner of retirement communities, has been inviting a few select entrepreneurs just to move in for a few days, show off their products and hear what the residents have to say.

That's what brought Dayle Rodriguez, 28, all the way from England to the dining room of Brookdale South Bay in Torrance, Calif. Rodriguez is the community and marketing manager for a company called Sentab. The startup's product, SentabTV, enables older adults who may not be comfortable with computers to access email, video chat and social media using just their televisions and a remote control.

"It's nothing new, it's nothing too complicated and it's intuitive because lots of people have TV remotes," says Rodriguez.

But none of that is the topic of conversation in the Brookdale dining room. Instead, Rodriguez solicits residents' advice on what he should get on his cheeseburger and how he should spend the afternoon. Billiards was on the agenda, as well as learning to play mahjong.

Rodriguez says it's important that residents here don't feel like he's selling them something. "I've had more feedback in a passive approach" he says. "Playing pool, playing cards, having dinner, having lunch," all work better "than going through a survey of questions. Them getting to know me and to trust me and knowing I'm not selling them something — there's more honest feedback that way."

Rodriguez is just the seventh entrepreneur to move into one of Brookdale's 1,100 senior living communities. Other new products in the program have included a kind of full-body blow dryer and specially designed clothing that allows people with disabilities to dress and undress themselves.

Brookdale has no financial relationship with these startups. But that's not what motivates the program, says Andrew Smith, Brookdale's director of strategy and innovation.

"First and foremost, the residents love it," says Smith. "It also provides Brookdale the opportunity to learn about and experience new technologies quickly and inexpensively and to make sure that we understand what residents want and need."

Mary Lou Busch, 93, agreed to try the Sentab system. She tells Rodriguez that it might be good for someone, but not for her.

"I have the computer and FaceTime, which I talk with my family on," she explains. She also has an iPad and a smart phone. "So I do pretty much everything I need to do."

Rodriguez takes it pretty well.

"I'm not going to lie to you, I would've liked a more positive response," he says. But "if people don't need it or want it, it's up to us to change, adapt it or make it more useful."

To be fair, if Rodriguez wanted feedback from some more technophobic seniors, he may have ended up in the wrong Brookdale community. This one's located in the heart of Southern California's aerospace corridor. Many residents have backgrounds in engineering, business and academia.

But Rodriguez says he's still learning something important by moving into to this Brookdale community: "People are more tech-savvy than we thought."

And besides, where else would he learn to play mahjong?

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The market for products designed for older adults could reach $30 billion by next year. Some startups want in. But they sometimes lack reaction from the people they hope will use the product, including, perhaps one day, B.J. Leiderman, who writes our theme music.

So the country's largest owner of retirement communities has invited a few select entrepreneurs to just move in for a few days, show off their products and hear what the residents have to say. NPR's Ina Jaffe covers aging and filed this report.

INA JAFFE, BYLINE: It's lunchtime at the Brookdale senior residence in Torrance, Calif. And resident Cecelia Graham has a recommendation.

CECELIA GRAHAM: And I had a hamburger 'cause their hamburgers are good.

DAYLE RODRIGUEZ: Should I order a hamburger?

JAFFE: The guy with the British accent is 28-year-old Dayle Rodriguez. He's the community and marketing manager for a product called SENTAB TV. It allows users to access email, video chat and social networks through their televisions. He's here to get feedback on the system, though it doesn't seem that way.

RODRIGUEZ: And I'm just going to enjoy the rest of the day, to be honest. Do you know what's happening today?

GRAHAM: There's billiards and pool. Do you play mahjong?

RODRIGUEZ: I'll do some billiards. And I think I might learn some mahjong while I'm here.

GRAHAM: OK.

RODRIGUEZ: Yeah.

JAFFE: Rodriguez says it's important that residents here don't feel like he's selling them something.

RODRIGUEZ: I've had more feedback and a more passive approach just, you know, playing pool, playing cards, having dinner, having lunch than actually going through, like, a survey of questions. Them getting to know me and to trust me and knowing I'm not selling them something - it's more honest feedback that way.

JAFFE: Rodriguez is the seventh entrepreneur to move into one of Brookdale's 1,100 senior-living communities. Other new products in the program have included a kind of full-body blow dryer and specially designed clothing that allows people with disabilities to dress and undress themselves.

Brookdale has no financial relationship with these startups. But that's not what motivates the program, says Andrew Smith, Brookdale's director of strategy and innovation.

ANDREW SMITH: First and foremost thing is residents love it. It also provides Brookdale the opportunity to learn about and experience new technologies very quickly and very inexpensively and to make sure that we understand what residents want and need.

JAFFE: Rodriguez's product, SENTAB TV, enables older adults to communicate and network the way they might on a computer. But all they have to do is use a conventional remote control.

RODRIGUEZ: It's nothing new. It's nothing too complicated. And it's quite intuitive because lots of people have TV remotes.

JAFFE: Ninety-three-year-old Mary Lou Busch agreed to try the SENTAB system. She tells Rodriguez that it might be good for someone but not for her.

MARY LOU BUSCH: I have the computer. And I have FaceTime, which I talk with my family on. And I have an iPad. And I have a smartphone. And so I do pretty much everything I need to do.

JAFFE: Rodriguez takes it pretty well.

RODRIGUEZ: I'm not going to to lie. Obviously, I'd like a more positive response. But, again, it is kind of that research. I mean, if people don't need it or don't want it, then it makes sense for us to try and adapt or change what we're doing or figure out what can make it more useful.

JAFFE: To be fair, if Rodriguez wanted feedback from some more technophobic seniors, he may have ended up in the wrong Brookdale community. This one's located in the heart of Southern California's aerospace corridor. He met residents with backgrounds in engineering, business and academia. But Rodriguez says he still learned something important.

RODRIGUEZ: People are more tech-savvy than we thought. There you go.

JAFFE: And where else would he learn to play mahjong? Ina Jaffe, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.