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Age is just a number, a big one for Indian start-ups

After spending years on the periphery of most brands’ business map, India’s elderly population is emerging as a lucrative clientele

Age is just a number, a big one for Indian start-ups
Anand Sinha
POSTED ON October 07, 2022 3:50 PM

Sixty-year-old Nishtha Joshi (name changed) was experiencing the empty nest syndrome after her only daughter got married. The pandemic heightened the Mumbaikar’s loneliness till she joined a group of like-minded and similar-aged peers. 

As part of a thriving social network, she has discovered a passion for painting and music and is now an active participant in hybrid quizzes, storytelling sessions and online fitness classes. Joining her were Col Samuel Tavamani from Bengaluru, who found himself sans company after the demise of his wife, and 69-year-old M Sivaguru, who resides with his oncologist daughter in Bengaluru but is alone most of the day. 

These senior citizens are members of Silver Talkies, an online community for people over 50 years of age, which helps them age with dignity, fun and camaraderie. The platform, which moved from being a physical community in Bengaluru till early 2020 to an online community during the pandemic, has members across 12 cities in India today.  

Silver Talkies, however, is not the only one catering to this segment. Other start-ups, like GetSetUp and Evergreen Club, which enable digital learning and engagement for the aging population, are also making the space more vibrant for the ones struggling to stay productive and engaged with the breakdown of joint families, empty nests and early retirement age. 

Recently, industrialist Ratan Tata, chairman emeritus of Tata Sons, invested in Goodfellows , a Pune-based start-up founded by Shantanu Naidu, that offers companionship to senior citizens as a service. Speaking at the brand’s launch event, the octogenarian had said, “You do not know what it is like to be lonely until you spend time alone wishing for companionship. I also feel that you do not mind getting old until you get old, and then you find [that] it is a different world.” 

Goodfellows

Tata Trusts' chairman emeritus Ratan Tata has backed Goodfellows, a start-up that pairs empathetic youth companions for the elderly 

There are several reasons why these platforms are gaining popularity. Chief amongst them is the fact that for a country that is ageing so rapidly, India is ill-equipped to take care of its elderly.  

According to the National Statistical Office’s Elderly In India 2021 report, the senior citizen population increased from 76.6 million in 2001 to 103.8 million in 2011. The 2021 projections say that it has gone up to 137.9 million and is likely to touch 193.8 million by 2031, accounting for 13.1% of the country’s total population.  

Until a few years ago, senior citizens were perceived as white-haired elders who had hung up their boots from active work and reconciled to a frugal lifestyle, living off their pension or life savings. Few companies considered them as serious consumers, barring those selling medical or religious products. 

However, the current generation of boomers is emerging as a segment that looks forward to convenience, aspiring for a better lifestyle and having the financial means to fulfill it. From travel and investments to self-care and technology—seniors are looking for customised services that meet their needs. Brands are increasingly interested in this consumption-driven segment.  

A 2019 Confederation of Indian Industry report revealed that the medical and lifestyle market for the economically independent senior urban population in India stood at about Rs 43,000 crore. It further added that the overall potential of this market could touch Rs 1,00,000 crore soon, excluding the real estate, banking and financial services and insurance and pharmacy products, and only Rs 10,000 crore had been addressed in the pre-pandemic months. 

India's aging population
For a country that is ageing so rapidly, India is ill-equipped to take care of its elderly

As the senior citizen segment continues to grow to become a larger percentage of the population, it is essential that companies focus on this market or they could risk losing up to even 30% of the market in some countries.  

Coming of Age 

Covid-19 propelled a huge behavioural shift amongst the elderly as they attempted to adopt the digital platform for various activities, like consumption of content and communication, notes Kumar Ajit, executive vice president, sales and marketing, at Saregama. “With the cohort's presence on the medium, they become a more important segment for even the entertainment companies to tap on to, as more and more brands leverage digital for reach and engagement with the target audience,” he points out.  

The concept of agetech—tech built around the needs of the elderly—is catching up globally and is supplementing the shift that Ajit is talking about. In the US, start-ups like Honor Technology and Papa that address the older adult population have already achieved unicorn status, and many venture capitalists globally are now investing in this space. 

However, there remains a large unexplored territory back home requiring an integrated approach towards promoting an older adult’s holistic well-being.  

According to Pritish Nelleri, COO of Khyaal, a digital platform for senior citizens, the best way to achieve product-market fit is to work along with this target clientele. The agetech start-up is developing digital solutions to enrich the lives of senior citizens started by building a community of seniors and engaging them in different infotainment activities online. 

“While interacting with them, our team gathered a lot of learnings. We figured out that they faced a lot of digital challenges due to the current state of UI/UX among the most popular apps, which are designed more from the perspective of Gen Z and millennials. Hence, we tried making our UI/UX as simple as possible for our seniors to interact with the app,” he explains. 

Kumar Ajit, executive vice president, sales and marketing, at Saregama
Kumar Ajit, executive vice president, sales and marketing, at Saregama

Tapan Mishra, co-founder of two senior-focused ventures Seniority and Evergreen Club, launched the former as an ecommerce platform for the elderly in 2016 after going through the complete product development process. This included understanding user needs through observation, conducting focus and closed group discussions and following this up with internal deliberations of the insights gathered. “Mapping this need with currently available products in the market gives you the gap assessment. Then it is about finding the right audience and going around educating them about your product,” he elaborates. 

While building Seniority, he understood that simple and small changes to the product placement made a big difference for the audience. “The products we curated were for older adults. Adding buying guides, product videos and product description to cater to specific use cases for seniors helped us tremendously,” Mishra says. 

Seniority’s initial business hurdle was finding the right channels to get the brand's message across. “There was no playbook for a brand like ours that is an amalgamation of different categories, serving a gap which was never looked at before and creating a new category altogether. Hence there was a lot of piloting involved and we are still going to great depths to learn and understand what works and what does not,” Mishra says. 

To stay ahead of the curve, the companies will have to have resources in place to ensure older adults are not left out of new advances in digital technologies, economic opportunities and health and wellness benefits.  

Neil D’Souza and Lawrence Kosick, who co-founded agetech company GetSetUp in August 2019, learned a lot from the early versions of the product when scalable online business for the segment was almost nonexistent. They tested everything—from the user interface, content, messaging, features and functionality—and quickly iterated based on feedback to build a global community of older adults.  

GetSetUp built its own proprietary senior-specific social learning platform that makes it easy for older adults to get online, learn technology, engage in mental enrichment activities and be socially connected. Since it has a customised video platform, the elderly do not need to download Zoom to access and engage in programming and connect with peers, which has helped improve its activation and engagement. 

“One of the best things we do at GetSetUp is listen to insights from seniors in our community. This has helped us improve our product and our services and design new tools to help fill in market gaps,” says Deval Delivala, co-founder and senior vice president of international markets at GetSetUp. 

Nidhi Chawla, founder of Silver Talkies, says that technology needs to adapt for the older adults to adopt it. “Hand holding and supporting older adults through tech open houses and digital literacy sessions have helped us take them along this empowered journey,” she adds. 

Gaining the target audience’s confidence is one of the challenges that these companies face. Since the elders are cautious about trusting a service provider, in the initial days, it took Mishra’s Seniority team a lot of time to gain their trust. However, he claims that with consistent effort and experience of delivery over the years, the RPG Enterprises-backed company has been able to gain their trust in the platform. 

Care Takes Centre Stage 

The prevalent cultural belief in India is that taking care of the older family members is a social and moral obligation of the young. However, changing lifestyles, growth of nuclear families and socio-economic factors lead to less than desirable care support or access for seniors. 

Tapan Mishra, co-founder of Seniority and Evergreen Club
Tapan Mishra, co-founder of Seniority and Evergreen Club

Chawla recalls how there were hardly any organised players in the eldercare space when she launched Silver Talkies in 2014, adding that over the years, the landscape has evolved and started shifting for the better. “Even the healthcare and senior living sector are seeing more depth in terms of the offerings coming up in the market. Home healthcare, transition and palliative care are emerging. Assisted living and ageing in place concepts are being introduced and are better understood,” she remarks, indicating the growing interest in the space. 

The nascent senior care space is rich with opportunities and growth prospects. The pandemic has further accentuated the need for an integrated care ecosystem that addresses their diverse lifestyle and healthcare needs while providing dependable, specialised and professional services and solutions. 

Antara Senior Care, a wholly owned subsidiary of Max India, jumped in to create such an ecosystem for seniors in 2013. Its current portfolio comprises residences for independent living, care homes and memory care homes for seniors who need assistance and continuous monitoring, care at home services and MedCare equipment for their convenience and health-related needs. 

Rajit Mehta, managing director and CEO of Antara Senior Care, claims that over 20 million elders stay alone in India, and the number is slated to rise within the next two decades. “The potential market size of assisted living services in India is estimated at about $1 billion, and initial estimates suggest that, at present, the silver economy is worth approximately Rs 73,082 crore. Some factors propelling this growth are the increasing senior population, increased life expectancy, growing purchasing power and changing lifestyle and life care needs,” he explains. 

The senior care company launched its first community in April 2017 in Dehradun with 190 apartments, which is home to over 100 residents currently. In 2020, it launched its second community in Noida with over 340 apartments in its first phase of development, which will be ready for possession by 2024. 

A study published in The Lancet showed that the life expectancy of an average Indian had increased by more than 10 years since 1990 from 59.6 years to 70.8 years in 2019. However, rising longevity does not translate to good health by default. Hence, as age progresses, the role of healthcare management and on-demand, doorstep service delivery becomes more prominent. 

While companies like Portea Medical focus on carving customised services for the elderly, there are others in almost every vertical offering elderly-specific services. This focus is only likely to increase in the foreseeable future. 

The biggest challenge for Portea has been the lack of awareness among the masses. According to co-founder and CEO Vaibhav Tewari, many senior citizens are not well-versed with digital technology and remain unaware of the home healthcare services or wary of the effectiveness, access and costs, etc. “Moreover, there is a severe shortage of qualified medical professionals at all levels, including doctors, nursing staff, hospital attendants and even lab staff. Capacity expansion of medical colleges and setting up of new training facilities for healthcare personnel is also a critical gap area,” he adds. 

Agrees Mehta, adding that unavailability of geriatric care professionals is a massive issue. Moreover, since the elder care industry is a fairly new concept in India, it comes with its own challenges, like a lack of regulations and policy reforms, awareness and perceived social stigma. 

He believes that it is important that a single governing body and national mission for senior citizens welfare, backed by a national portal for the elderly, should be appointed to place the power of choice in the hands of the consumer. A fair and participative regulatory framework to support development of the private sector will provide the much necessary market stewardship, he adds. 

The increased focus of companies on the elderly segment is a realisation of the untapped opportunities. With the next generation of seniors, who are used to a different lifestyle, have better financial freedom and a strong desire to stay healthy and independent, newer avenues will open up for companies as they seek quality services to suit their ageing lifestyle and the industry plays catch up with its offerings. 

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