Thursday, July 24, 2008

Aging Smart

"The numbers,' Tibal said,'The reimagining.' The numbers from the CFO must have showed that the rescue attempt was looking like a flop."

Gerald Zaltman and Lindsay Zaltman, The Sure Thing That Flopped, Harvard Business Review, July-August 2008.

This HBR case study and commentary recounts and interprets a constructive mistake, a twice-launched business venture aimed at providing smart products for aging bodies and minds. It failed, twice.

Was this lack of interest in aging-friendly products part of a broader trend of baby boomer blindness? I thought we would be a bit more risk-taking about the aging process.

Some twenty years ago I worked on a project related to "aging in place" in southeast Baltimore, discussed in Nonprofit Leadership and "Adapting Rowhomes for Aging in Place: The Story of Baltimore's Idea House" by Jo Fisher and myself.

We discovered the concept and empirical reality of "naturally occurring retirement communities" or NORCs, which suggested that most older people wanted to stay put in their homes and communities. We adopted this idea and developed a set of ideas, services, technical assistance, and advice for older homeowners in these moderate-income neighborhoods so that they could stay in their homes and have a decent quality of life.

At the core of our effort,in the early days, was "Our Idea House," a model rowhome outfitted through donations that showed what could be done with bathrooms, stairs, kitchens, floors, and electrical fixtures to make them more aging friendly. This was important not just for regular day-to-day living but because lack of retrofitting of this kind often led to falls or accidents, one of the largest contributors to more serious illnesses and the utilization of assisted living or nursing homes.

The project succeeded in many ways but didn't catch on as we thought it would. We attributed this, in part, to the thriftiness of the Depression-era generation and their reluctance to spend meager funds on their own comfort and safety. We believed that future generations of aging adults would be more open to explicit planning for aging in all its dimensions.

I hope this is the case, but one interpretation of the HBR case study is that growing older is still not a popular identity that galvanizes our strategic planning and action.

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