Gerontechnology and How We Think About Aging

Wendi Burkardt is the CEO and co-founder for Silvernest (www.silvernest.com), an online home sharing service for the 50+ crowd that is redefining the meaning of “roommates.” Silvernest uses the power of technology to tap into the sharing economy and offer an “aging in place” alternative – so older homeowners can stay in the home they love longer and renters can more easily find a home to love as they age. Wendy is going to be talking to us about a term called Gerontechnology.

Frank:  Our guest today is Wendi Burkhardt. She is the CEO and co-founder of Silvernest. It's an online home-sharing service for the 50-and-older crowd that is redefining the meaning of “roommate”. Silvernest uses the power of technology to tap into the sharing economy and offer an aging-in-place alternative, so older homeowners can stay in the home they love longer, and renters can more easily find a home to love as they age. Wendi is going to be talking to us not only about Silvernest, but about the term gerontechnology. I just learned about this, so I'm looking forward to finding out more. Wendi, thank you for joining us on The Aging Boomers. Really appreciate it.

Wendi:  Good morning, Frank. Thanks for having me. I'm excited to be here and to talk with all of you today.

Frank:   Yes! Maybe before we get into the discussion on gerontechnology, tell us a little more about Silvernest.

Wendi:  Sure. Silvernest is an online roommate matching service that's been designed and built specifically for the aging demographic. Maybe let me back up and share that this was really designed out of personal experience, having aging loved ones in my family and in our co-founder's family. We recognized that this aging generation really wants to redefine the way that they age, and that includes changing the space that they age within. Many folks have been in a position where they've watched their family and their loved ones age and have to move out of their home, and I think what's happening with the boomers is they're saying, "You know, we want a different alternative, and we want a place to stay where we've lived for a long time. We want to be able to age in place." Silvernest was born to help address that need, and we've been live for about a year and a half. I'm sorry, we've been live for about a year. We started about a year and a half ago, and we've been growing very rapidly. I'm excited to be here and to tell you more about it today.

In the last few years alone, we're starting to see the emergence of new technology solutions to help address aging on many different levels. I'm sure most folks have heard of the emergence of the wearable technology and the types of solutions that are now being developed for in-home care, things that are using artificial intelligence and robots. It's very Orson Welles, it's very futuristic, but the reality is that technology is truly changing the way that we age. I think in 10, 15, 20 years, the landscape is going to be incredibly different in terms of what we define for aging today, and there are going to be new alternatives that emerge that we can't even yet quite understand. It's very, very exciting.

Frank:   It is exciting. I'm familiar with a lot of that technology, being in the industry, but I guess I'd like to ask ... a lot of people, of course, want to stay at home. I mean, not a lot of people, I would say probably pretty close to 100% want to live the rest of their life at home if they can, but maybe it might not be safe for them. Many times you've got one or two or both types of situations. You have somebody who has issues physically that become more challenging, and you have people who have issues cognitively that certainly become more challenging. Would you say that this technology is geared more towards one or the other?

Wendi:  You know, I actually think we're seeing technology being applied to both of those situations and circumstances. In our case, for example, we're focused on the boomers, - our target audience - and our solution is really focused on individuals between the ages of 50 and 80. Once you hit that 80-year-old mark, one of the things that we recognize is that there are some acute needs that really start to evolve that drive a different solution requirement. I think what's happening is that the technology solutions that are evolving are really taking on that divide to some degree.

There's quite a bit of attention right now on caregiving as a solution, so to address more of that acute needs state, you're looking at solutions that are designed to accommodate someone in-home for whom it may be physically challenging to remain there. They're looking at solutions that accommodate folks who have dementia, Alzheimer's, other extremes of chronic conditions. I think that even our solution today has been to either have full-time caregiving come into the home or actually have those individuals have to move into an assisted facility. I think that even those individuals will be able to reap the benefit of technology in the future based on some of the new applications that are being developed.

There's really some phenomenal solutions ... all of the technology that can be embedded in the home, smart technology that can be embedded in the home. Japan is already using robots to assist individuals. It's interesting. Japan culturally, from a caregiving perspective is really sensitive to having someone physically touch them, so robots were designed there for use in the home to actually be able to physically lift and carry individuals throughout the home. I think you're going to see a lot of exciting technology that is really categorized by the particular need. There will be caregiving solutions, certainly, and healthcare solutions that are designed for those acute needs in chronic illness situations, and then I think there's a whole slew of other technologies that come before even that particular stage of life.

Frank:   Do you think this boomer group is going to be more receptive to this type of technology than previous generations?

Wendi:  Absolutely, you bet. The boomers have largely been responsible for creating the technology that we all live with today, right? It's interesting because one of the conversations that comes up frequently when folks are asking about our solution is, “Wow, you're targeting an older generation, but they're not really digitally savvy”. It's funny because the numbers will tell you otherwise. In the 50-plus age group today, over 46% of the baby boomers actually have a smart phone, 65% of them are active daily on social media, and 75% of them are digital buyers. What's interesting is that, for us in our solution, almost half of our first-time users actually come in through a mobile platform. I think that's very exciting because what that's telling us is that this generation is actually much more digitally savvy than they get credit for.

We have to remember that they're the ones who have created the products that have come before us. I have a slide in the deck that I use frequently to remind us, myself included, of our history, you know, things like pagers, the old brick cellphones, and the DVD players and things that we forget about but have been part of our evolution in technology over the last 15 - 20 years. Those are the products that this aging generation created, and they've gone on to help create some of the best applications on the Internet, some of the best companies and the best products that exist today. So yes, I 100% believe that this generation is going to be receptive to technology solutions, and I think they welcome them. I think many of them still continue to participate in the design of them, quite frankly.

Frank:   Can you share with us some of examples? There's a lot of different technology out there. I'm certainly not as familiar, probably, as you are because you're very involved with this, but I am familiar with some of it. Can you share some of the types of technology that are being used effectively today?

Wendi:  Well, I think some of the things are very exciting. As I shared about the robotics that we see today and the emergence of the robotics in Japan, I think we're moving closer to that here in the United States, and I think we're going to see robotics on many different levels. I think that's certainly here and live now, and it's being examined for application in many different circumstances. I think something as simple as the self-driving car, right, which Tesla and Google have been working towards. That sounds very futuristic, but it is actually here, and it’s very exciting because one of the biggest problems that the aging generation faces is isolation due to the lack of mobility; so the emergence of technology like the self-driving car is exciting because it allows people greater mobility, which we know has incredible impact on health and well-being.

I think that right now one of the things that we use frequently are products like Google Hangouts and FaceTime. The power connectivity out there is incredibly rich in terms of impacting someone's ability to stay in their home and improve their health and well-being. We know that there is an increased rate of death by 24% for individuals living alone over the age of 50. I think that's a staggering statistic, and I think when we think about technology and the application of it in aging it isn't as simple as just looking at the application of it in healthcare. It really is about lifestyle and allowing the freedom to encourage people to continue to connect and come together and be able to continue to live with the they desire.

Frank:   So let's talk about some realities. Do you feel that this age group is prepared financially for the fact that we're living longer because we're beating various diseases, and we have a greater risk with other issues. Do you think that this generation is prepared?

Wendi:  You know, unfortunately, many of them are not, and that is one of the harsh realities. When we look at the size of this aging population today in the United States, there are 109 million people who are over the age of 50, and that number grows to over 132 million just in the next 14 years. What we know about this particular age group is that 44 million of them today have less than $50,000 saved in the bank. Really scary when you think about what the next 15 or 20 years could hold. As we're getting ready to move into fixed income, the unfortunate truth is that many individuals are going to be financially stressed due to the fact that they have not adequately saved. I think one of the reasons that we designed the Silvernest solution is that the positive side of that equation is that many of these individuals actually own their home, so that can work as an asset for them in their aging years. It becomes one of their greatest financial assets.

Frank:   We know that certainly people want to live the rest of their lives at home, but I know firsthand, just in the business that I'm in, that someone living at home, especially alone, may not be the safest thing for them. Talk to us more about this and how you see this changing. I know we talked about technology, of course, but it might lead into more of what you're doing with Silvernest, but talk to us about this....

Wendi:  Sure, I think it's interesting because I imagine that most of the listeners can think back to a time not terribly long ago where culturally it wasn't unusual for us to know of people that have taken in boarders or had other folks living with them. I know with my grandparents, they had multiple individuals that were living with them as they aged. I think we've had the luxury of actually being able to move out of our urban environments and our urban communities, but unfortunately, what's happened is that in the process we've isolated ourselves as we age in our living situations. We don't come together quite as well as we used to in community.

What's interesting, and I kind of jokingly refer to this in some of my conversations, but when we're younger we do a much better job of coming together and living in community, so the idea of having a roommate when you are younger is kind of fun and cool, and it's terribly scary. We willingly do this and don't hesitate. Then as we age, we spend most of our lives with our family and loved ones. Then suddenly we find ourselves, through one situation or another, living by ourselves or many people living alone.

As the shared economy has emerged, it offers us the opportunity to think about doing some things that we might not otherwise have thought about doing or thinking of new ways of coming back together. That's really what the premise of a shared economy is. What we're proposing is the idea of coming back together in aging, instead of isolating and living alone and being forced to change our living situation. There is an alternative that asks, why can't we come back together and really work in community and live in shared space and be able to help one another and recognize that benefit?

Frank:   Yes, we're just taking it a step further, even in some assisted living communities, they're taking that concept within the community, so there might an apartment ... for example, a two-bedroom apartment, and some communities are setting it up as a shared space where they put people together, but what you're talking about ... it's a similar concept. What you're talking about is doing it at home and maybe even that the owner of that home could actually get income that would help them financially as well, if I'm understanding your concept. Is that correct?

Wendi:  Absolutely, yes. We know that there's certainly quality of life benefit to sharing space with someone as we age, as we've discussed. Then there's also a financial benefit if someone does have a space that has availability to share, then they certainly can leverage that for financial benefit.

Frank:   Tell us more how it all works with Silvernest. I think the thing that probably comes to mind - It certainly came to my mind - is how do you match people up? If they're living in that same home, how do you know they're going to be compatible?

Wendi:  That's the number one question, isn’t it? I think that one of the reasons that we tend not to think about having a roommate as we age is that it gets a little scary to think about. We all get a little set in our ways and particular about how we want to live. Then certainly the idea of opening our space to someone that we don't know can be really scary. What we are focused on is trying to create an end-to-end solution that is trying to make it as seamless and as secure as possible to identify the right person to share the space with.

What we've built is a proprietary algorithm that actually does compatibility matching. It actually pairs up the prospective homeowner and the renter to determine, based on the data, that they both input, if they will actually live well together? Are you compatible for sharing a space? Once we've identified that those individuals are a good pair, we connect them, and our system also does all of the vetting. We employ identity verification. We employ a full-scale background screen, and we basically do this heavy lifting to ensure that these individuals are who they say they are and to make sure that there's not anything unsavory in their background.

Beyond that, there are other things to think about that really need to happen for this solution to be easy, so having access to a lease that we know is designed for the situation, that has been designed to comply with state law. We've built one of those into the backend of the system so that the individuals can come through, actually customize that lease for their need. Last, they can set up an auto-bill-pay feature which makes it very easy and automatic for the rent to transfer and hopefully in the near future also for other bills that need to be shared. I think, again, going back to, why in the heck would I not do this, it's because we are scared of who the person might be and how challenging it might be to get into the situation. What we have worked to design is a thorough, comprehensive solution that tries to address all of those concerns.

Frank:   I know you haven't been doing this that long, but ... how is it looking so far in the time you've been doing it? How are things working? Are you doing this just in certain markets initially, or are you doing this all over the country right now?

Wendi:  No, it's been really exciting. We went live with the product at the end of October of last year, so it's amazing to me. Our home base is in the Denver-Boulder area in Colorado, so we really focused our efforts there. We've already had 5,000 people sign up in every state in the country, so it's been interesting to see the evolution of the market. The product is fully available for all of the markets across the country, obviously, but we really focused our initial effort in the Denver area, and we saw markets like Minneapolis grow organically and very quickly. Markets like Los Angeles grow very quickly. It's funny. I have people say all the time, "Oh, my gosh, are you in San Francisco? Are you here?" and I say, "Yes, we are here. We just aren't actively marketing here yet, but the product is here," and it certainly works if there are individuals participating and using the product there, which has happened in some of the other markets, so it's been really exciting.

Frank:  That's great. It's commercial time, so go ahead and tell people how they can learn more about Silvernest and any contact information.

Wendi:  Thank you. The easiest way to find out about us is certainly to come to our website. It's www.silvernest.com, and you can get a full overview of the product there. We have a number of different press releases and some testimonials, and people can get a good sense of the product at our website.