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Changing Aging: Is the Business Community Prepared?

February 28th, 2017

We were so thrilled to introduce Susan Ellenberg, Senior Director of Community Development for SVO (the silicon valley organization) to our Age-friendly initiative and introduce her to John Feather, CEO of Grantmakers in Aging, when he was in San Jose for the Seniors’ Agenda Network Summit. Susan and The Health Trust graciously hosted a breakfast with alumni of Leadership San Jose to share the economic impact of Age-Friendly cities.  Here are her reflections and insights from the discussion over breakfast.

I hadn’t thought very much about ‘old people’ (though my young adult children insist that I am one) before participating in a conversation with a small group of LSJ alumni, facilitated by  Dr John Feather, Chief Executive Officer at Grantmakers in Aging, around the subject of an aging citizenry. Apparently, they (we) are a growing cohort: in 2017, ‘seniors’ (defined here as 60+) make up 15% of our county’s population; by 2030, that proportion will double to 30%. That’s a lot of people lining up for the 4:30 matinee.

This shifting demographic is going to have significant, in many ways positive, impact on all aspects of our economy.

  1. Seniors continue to pay taxes, but place less demand on public education, police services, jails and roads
  2. Seniors spend money: on movies, theater, restaurants, fitness clubs, lectures, travel and more
  3. Seniors generate new industry niches: Lyft, for example, is capitalizing on this new population, both as passengers and drivers.
  4. Seniors generate new product and service needs, from new technologies to enhance brain health and person-centric health care to self-driving cars, drones and task robots. Entire incubators are being designed to foster growth in this area (check out as an example).
  5. Seniors often scale down, increasing demand for small, often higher density housing and desire amenities that are within walking distance
  6. Seniors are positioned to promote an agenda for universal design: housing, transportation, roads and sidewalks, and businesses that are designed to be accessible for seniors are by definition more inclusive of the entire population including people with disabilities and children.

On the other hand, seniors who are not financially secure place a demand on social services: they may need subsidized housing, supplemental nutrition and health care, modified transportation and day centers. How a community cares for its seniors says much about its ethical nature. San Jose was recently designated by the World Health Organization as an ‘Age Friendly City’ and the County of Santa Clara is working toward all 15 cities in the county earning this designation by the coming summer. The public sector is thinking about and planning for the growing tide of seniors, but is the business sector yet focused on this shift? How will businesses be impacted and what new practices might be put into place?

One suggestion is to follow the public sector example and think about what it might mean to be an ‘age friendly business’. Some qualities might include the following:

  1. Employees are trained to be patient with a client/customer who appears to be confused, is moving slowly or has trouble making a decision. They are further trained to speak loudly and clearly, without expressing frustration or yelling, when it appears that someone is having trouble hearing them.
  2. Places of business provide access to comfortable places to sit, particularly if clients/customers may expect to wait some time for their product/service.
  3. Signage is printed in a large enough font to be visible to people with diminished eyesight.
  4. Similarly, menus with large font and lighting sources are available.
  5. Accessible restrooms are available.
  6. The business’s physical design offers universal access to adults with strollers, people with disabilities and seniors, including ramps, restroom safety rails and wide aisles.

An “age friendly business” designation could drive more customers or clients to patronize a business that thoughtfully caters to all community members.

The business community could also choose to recognize and celebrate businesses that are actively catering to this emerging demographic and investors might be encouraged to fund innovations that will be of use to an increasingly large percentage of the population.

There is much the business community can do to prepare for and prosper in a community populated by many more persons ‘of a certain age’ and the svo is prepared to be a part of that conversation. For more information or to engage in creating an action plan around Changing Aging, please contact Susan Ellenberg at

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