Automobiles: Next Aging-In-Place Frontier?

We often talk about “the conversation” between adult children and elderly parents when it comes to staying in the family home or relocating to a retirement community. But one conversation that often prompts such a decision is the ability (or inability) to operate a vehicle.

Driving is viewed as the key to independence and even self-worth -- an issue that will no doubt play a bigger role as Boomers attempt to age in place. According to a recent survey by pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, 64% of Americans over age 65 rank losing independence as their biggest fear.

As Boomers age during the next 20 years, the number of U.S. drivers over 70 will triple. One in every five drivers in Florida, for example, is 65 or older. That state, among others, has mandated various tests for older drivers, including vision and basic behind-the-wheel performance (interestingly, 17 states currently have no age-based licensing requirements).



We know that the physical limitations of aging and the use of certain medications affect our driving ability. AARP has suggested promoting more accurate screening tools, including those involving state medical-review programs. So how can marketers reach a growing demographic that is increasingly inclined to age in place — a trend extending to the car?

Instead of addressing “the conversation,” let’s look at the auto industry. How it responds to the massive wave of aging Boomers will help determine how brands are perceived by consumers. 

Technology is a proven tool that provides solutions to older consumers while easing demand for human help at home and in the healthcare setting, and automotive innovations should follow suit. Even today, one in three people aged 65 and older feel that advancements in safety and infotainment help keep them safe and focused on the road. 

Protecting the older driver could even be seen as a form of corporate social responsibility for auto brands that market innovations aimed at keeping older drivers safe. Features such as self-parking, cameras, lane change and distance warnings, self-braking — and even alerts that sound when a driver becomes sleepy — could all be marketed as potential safeguards against errors made by aging drivers. For example, Ford has developed technology that automatically monitors a driver’s heart rate, and OnStar’s Family Link has also been marketed as a way for consumers to keep watch over both children and elderly parents in the car. 

Marketing those features is another challenge altogether. A widely cited J.D. Power/AARP report shows that Boomers bought nearly two-thirds of new cars last year, although they’re the target of only 10% of the industry’s ad dollars. They also enjoy higher income levels, and can afford newer models. 

In the past, automakers have marketed luxury brands primarily to the Boomer market, thanks to its higher level of disposable income. But smart manufacturers have also tapped into the “active lifestyle” exhibited by many Boomers, as witnessed by the Toyota Venza ads introduced in 2011 and Audi’s “Old Luxury” campaign. Others are even aiming for the “active single” Boomer driver, and those in the sandwich generation raising families and caring for elderly parents.

Obviously, automobile manufacturers will need to look outside the features that traditionally sell cars (performance, design, etc.) to make their products appealing to aging generations through electronics, safety and fuel economy. And, instead of overloading vehicles with confusing gadgets or pushing the high-tech advancements themselves, these brands should focus on why those innovations are simple, easy to use, and will keep drivers safe behind the wheel.

As Boomers age, many of the goods and services they use will need to adapt to their changing abilities, and cars are no exception. This growing “age wave” requires new incentives to keep aging consumers safe and driving, dare we say, as long as possible.

4 comments about "Automobiles: Next Aging-In-Place Frontier? ".
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  1. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, September 24, 2012 at 11:54 a.m.

    Gadgets are not helpful if they are not used. Gadgets in cars are dangerous, not helpful. Boomers, even many of the up and coming boomers will not use the gadgets. (Personally, I would like to live close enough to a Trader Joe's to walk to it if it ever comes to that, but that is part of other topics.) Just recently, a friend's father drove his car into the side of his house that was condemned (it is fixable). She had to move her parents to another house she owned until she can move them back. Meanwhile with a full time job+ she has to do the food shopping, etc for them and they don't want to go to an assisted living facility close to her. These are constant stories we all get. The answer isn't gadget; it is so much more involved and expensive beyond the auto market.

  2. Ian Straus from VIA Metropolitan Transit, September 24, 2012 at 12:13 p.m.

    The idea that "aging in place" without any change in lifestyle is a reasonable expectation, has yet to be supported by facts or by a practical public policy. Yes, it's an understandable desire. But wishful thinking won't take you very far.

    The survey research I have dealt with shows that past age 70, an increasing proportion of "senior citizens" do perceive serious drops in their ability to drive.

    I question whether the right way to go is keeping people behind the wheel of a big car.

    By the way, I also question whether public transportation is an affordable answer. The sad fact is that too many people have bought houses in neighborhoods that are laid out so public transportaiton can not operate efficiently there.

    Alternative ways to deal with the increasing mis-match between aging and bad urban design include
    - Incentives to move to parts of town with better public transportation. It should be cheaper to help people move than to support an unsupportable lifestyle in a badly planned neighborhood.
    - Driving golf carts at low speed rather than high-horsepower vehicles, to take care of shorter trips such as to the grocery store.
    - Improved urban design, that is mixed-use communities, so the grocery store and oher shoppin,the doctor and amusements, are not miles away.

  3. Anne Peterson from Idaho Public Televsion, September 24, 2012 at 6:01 p.m.

    Just a reminder -- many examples chosen to illustrate why older drivers are a problem are not limited to older drivers -- people just don't notice the examples so much when a 30- or 40-year-old is responsible. I collided our vehicle door with my parents house when I was in my early 30s. You didn't notice it did you?

  4. Shane Swisher from Varsity, October 2, 2012 at 2:58 p.m.

    Check out this piece on "Driverless Cars"

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