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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.
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.
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