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Is gerontology cool yet?....Interview with member Amy LaGrant

Gerontologist, Co-Founder BrandMETTLE, TEDx Speaker, Alzheimer's Association TN Chapter Board Member, new member of the GAIL and also named Amy!

Why yes, Amy, we are cool! I love this and I loved hearing about all the good things Amy is doing. I find her career fascinating and motivational to young, aspiring gerontologists out there in academia wondering how they can serve older adults in many different capacities. I hear all too often students who LOVE working with older adults, have a passion for this work, but are talked out of pursuing the path of gerontology because, well, it wasn’t cool yet. The tide is turning and brilliant young minds cannot stay away. I am excited for the future of Gerontology.

It was interesting to hear that my path to gerontology was also Amy’s path. We both started as a kid and Amy was just 8 years old volunteering in a nursing home and adult day centers. Amy shared, “I’ve always loved being around older people - their wisdom, their faces, their hands. I felt very comfortable around older generations. It was my mom who encouraged me to get involved with the senior community when I was so young because we lived far away from my grandparents and she thought this volunteer work would fill that gap in my life.” Well, Amy, your mom knew what she was doing…Thanks Amy’s mom!

As Amy continued her journey in college, it was a “no-brainer” when it was time to declare her major in Gerontology. “That’s when studying older people officially became my life’s work. The Social Science of getting older includes everything from humanities and policy to public health & ageism. As I’m getting older, it’s been even more interesting to understand societal influences on aging and notice how we change our thinking about getting older in our 40’s, 50’s and beyond.”

Today, Amy focuses on providing businesses & organizations, especially media outlets, large corporations, and advertising agencies, an in-depth understanding of the aging population. “My work helps these institutions provide direct support and bring relevant products to market. In marketing and advertising, it’s important to communicate aging more positively and productively rather than perpetuate negative attitudes and stereotypes that promote ageism. Seeing the opportunity to work in large organizations, we can ensure we bring forth effective policies, marketing representation, or product development innovation around these populations and their needs.”

It wasn’t too much later that Amy’s work also became personal. Her father was diagnosed with Lewy Body Dementia and Amy, as a Gerontologist, was able to share her experience in this amazing TED talk about her journey and challenges during this time. “That TEDx talk was very personal for me because it was about my experience with my dad & how it changed our relationship and our family dynamics. So many people have listened to my talk and it’s been so rewarding to hear from families and caregivers who say they appreciate my honesty about the challenges I faced - even as a professional Gerontologist - in caring for my dad. There are a lot of stigmas about people with dementia and Alzheimer’s, which can make caregivers feel judged or feel guilty in these roles. Stigmas can also hinder early diagnosis and delay necessary treatment to help slow its progression. Until we have a cure, early detection is vital so anything we can do to break down this negativity is hugely important for everyone.”

I asked Amy what motivated her to be in the Agetech space as a Gerontologist and her insights are extremely valuable to others forging the Agetech landscape. “Our society has a fast-growing senior population with unique challenges that need solutions. From the aging tech perspective, all companies, investors, and entrepreneurs need to double down on these consumers. Ageism is still a HUGE issue in the corporate sector and many entrepreneurs market their products with messaging that perpetuates ageism. From an investor standpoint, many of them don’t want to be associated with AgeTech because they think it’s not trendy and would turn off younger customers. When I talk with groups of business people, I often make a light-hearted joke and ask, “ is gerontology cool yet?” What I really mean is, have we reached the point where we see the value in serving seniors? What keeps me fired up in this space is convincing people that it is, in fact, cool, to be endorsed by seniors and that seniors and their care teams are worth investing in. Not only are seniors turning to tech in record numbers - from employing the latest personal devices to embracing online banking - but they also have a tremendous amount of spending power.

There are still real challenges there - between the intersection of seniors and tech. For example, technology must accommodate vision changes, dexterity changes, stylistic preferences and more. There are also self-imposed challenges to the industry itself, like misconceptions about what seniors are capable of in the tech realm. Tapping into my unique experiences to help companies connect with seniors is unbelievably rewarding. Ultimately, knowing that my work is helping more seniors & their ecosystem in the Age Tech space is very motivating.”

As Agetech companies are finding their way into the limelight, it will be extremely important for the accessibility issues to be considered when building a product or service. There are so many factors that can make or break Agetech companies related to the physiological changes that occur during the aging journey. While it is hard for start ups to have the financial bandwidth to employ Gerontologists and other aging specialties, it is important to connect and explore all the nuances that you may not have thought about when launching that amazing innovative idea.

This is why the GAIL was developed and why it is growing such a fast and expansive membership across 5 countries currently. Every single human on the planet is aging and these innovations will never make it in a world of solidarity and greed. Creating community and collaborating is the only way any of us will be able to benefit from Agetech innovations in our lives as we age.

I asked Amy what the most interesting Agetech project she has worked on to date and I love how many different solutions for various challenges of aging she has worked with in her career. “In the early 2000’s, I was honored to work at Age Wave, a leading think tank for aging innovation. At the time, dot.coms were launching websites targeting the aging space—everything from love, caregiving, senior living, and financial wellness. Some of my favorites were a fall detection device that monitored gait, another was a wandering guide that utilized mobile technology, and Posit Science, which was the leader in brain games by understanding the role of neuroplasticity and our ability to improve our aging brains. Since then, I have consulted on clothing that helps cancer patients, telehealth devices, ambient fall detection, and recently, how VR can improve the quality of life of homebound seniors.”

The GAIL is a product of the gap that exists between market and innovation that Agetech has to face as it moves into the future. Amy commented on this gap with her insights and advice for other members of the GAIL as Agetech solutions continue to expand. “The most significant gap is the need for more education on the value of investing in this AgeTech technology and services. Many investors need help understanding the market and it’s exciting to see specific organizations such as Aging 2.0 work to educate and develop this investor community. It has improved, but there’s a long way to go to keep up with the demands we’ll see in the future. One area that I also see as a gap is truly understanding who the market is for these technologies. I see many pitch decks that do a poor job of defining the audience as ‘family caregivers or people over 65.’ More specificity is required to truly understand the diversity and complexity of the needs in this ever-expanding group”.

And listen up GAIL members, she has two pieces of advice:

  1. Refrain from building your go-to-market strategy based on selling through senior living communities to focus on the middle market that technology solutions can serve. The senior living industry only serves 10% of the aging population, as many seniors either need different kinds of assistance or are not interested in community living at all. Some of these organizations have many challenges around technology, including bandwidth. Plus, in our post-COVID world, these organizations focus heavily on recouping revenue and maintaining occupancy.

  2. Engage with experts that have come before you. Many of the conversation’s entrepreneurs are having are too familiar and only rehash discussions that have been going on for decades. Personally, I’m excited for a new kind of collaboration to help entrepreneurs access these experts.

So, take Amy’s advice and recruit more members for the GAIL so that our collaborations will continue to expand, provide productive collaborations and be pivotal in the movement of Agetech into the forefront of technological innovations.

Thank you Amy for your time and insights and to reiterate, you are very cool Amy….very cool! If interested in connecting with Amy, she is on LinkedIn and you can access her profile here.

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