Sarah Thomas on Age-Tech Innovation and the Future of Senior Living
Updated: Jan 9
The CEO of Delight by Design and MezTal shares insights from 20 years of creating inclusive products, brands, spaces, and advising startups, large corporations and investors.
Nancy: Please tell us about your background
Sarah: I'm an occupational therapist and I've been in the aging space for 20 years—mostly at the intersection of aging in technology with three buckets:
First, I help age-tech startups enter the market and work on product/market, user interface (UI), user experience (UX) product design, go-to-market strategy, growth strategy, and investment strategy. The second bucket is working with brands like Adidas and large healthcare organizations looking to understand the mature consumer, the longevity market and how to adopt technologies and innovations for new business models. The third bucket is the venture capital side, looking at the landscape of investment and how it changes as the demographics shift. The focus is on decreasing the noise in the landscape from bright, shiny objects, to the truly valuable startups making a difference in the world.
Nancy: From your broad perspective in these three buckets, what are some of the larger themes that you're seeing?
Sarah: As far as technology is concerned, there is a trend towards consumer adoption. The pandemic allowed people greater access to resources, connection, and community. From smart home automation, to the integration of telehealth into television sets, we are looking at how people access technology, how technologies connect to people, and how technology is enhancing and enabling access to various resources.
There is a trend towards a lifestyle approach, with resources for health, mental health, and general well-being, in the consumer market as well as in senior living. We are looking at how to use technology to gain greater connection and focus on all the dimensions of wellness across our lifespan, and how to tend to the spiritual, psychosocial, emotional, and physical areas of our life. We're seeing a more personalized, customized approach to our technology consumption and to the offerings that are out there in the market, both for the direct consumer marketplace and senior living.
Nancy: With staffing shortages an ongoing issue, the only way to provide customized experiences with less staff is through the use of technology, right?
Sarah: Yes, for sure. We have to create better efficiencies and use of staff’s hands-on time. Looking at some of the human capital and staffing issues, solutions like robotic food delivery make sense. When you can offload up to six miles per shift to a robot and save wear and tear on the human body from going from kitchen to table, the human experience can be much more personal and built around the customer service experience at the table, rather spending time bussing tables.
We are looking at the workforce in a different way. If you're not carrying heavy trays and walking so many steps, you lessen the burden on the body and open workforce opportunities for older adults to continue working or come back into the workforce. Robots won’t replace our workforce, rather they will support people to do what they do best.
Nancy: You recently wrote an article for Nexus Insights about a human centered approach to design and integrative wellness programs. Tell us about how senior living is starting to expand their view of wellness and your approach to designing for this market.
Sarah: Often when we talk about wellness, we think about the care elements of assisted living. When we just look at the wellness dimensions, we often gravitate towards the physical aspects, but we need many more dimensions of wellness to be served. We're looking at mental health, lifelong learning, and a customized lifestyle. We had the choice during the pandemic of how we spend our time and who we spent it with, so maybe we set boundaries differently than we did before. We are re-evaluating our priorities and connections. Senior living is doing that and operators are starting to look at different models.
In 2019, I launched the first membership model in senior living with Transforming Age. We created a personalized approach to wellness and a lifestyle approach that matched activities based on personalized goals. I think that was a kickoff of a new type of model that has now evolved.
Senior living operators like Juniper Communities and Essex Communities are looking at a highly personal membership model: Want to learn a new skill like playing an instrument? Showcase your art or travel? Volunteer in your community? Innovative communities are taking inventory of residents’ short and long-term goals, re-evaluating programs and partnerships, and using space differently. Technology plays a role in bringing more resources and creating greater efficiencies. With artificial intelligence, we can make suggestions based on predictive behavior.
Nancy: When you're talking about this membership model, how does the payment structure work? Is it a pay down model?
Sarah: Every membership model we have developed through Delight by Design is customized to the client; it can be like a gym membership with a flat fee per month and then certain things are included. At a gym like Lifetime Fitness or Equinox, fitness and yoga classes and use of the nautical equipment are included in the monthly fee, but a massage or personal training is an extra fee. I'm seeing that evolve in senior living as well. With certain elements included and some a la carte, it allows you to customize the program.
Nancy: Let’s segue to MezTal. Tell about Mexico-based staffing company you've joined as CEO.
Sarah: Initially I advised MezTal on building infrastructure and meeting market needs, then stepped into the CEO role last September. Every one of the three buckets I discussed has staffing shortages, like a technology company that just raised this money and can't find enough engineers, or a senior living community that needs a controller. You don't need them sitting in the brick-and-mortar office. So we started to think about building an infrastructure that works in the U.S. as well as Mexico.
Employees join Meztal in Mexico and are assigned clients in the U.S. who value their talent and expertise. We have grown considerably to 265 employees. Our recruiting windows are shorter than in the US, and cost about 40 to 50% the cost of a fully-loaded employee. We're finding really dedicated employees who want to work, especially want to work for mission-driven organizations that are doing something valuable for older adults.
Nancy: Are you seeing any demand for wellness services like massage and other types of bodywork in senior living communities?
Sarah: I do see some interest anecdotally, and the demand is not necessarily the new influx of boomers. Success depends on awareness and the level of comfort and how its included in the programming. Massage is more successful when the massage therapist builds rapport with the resident and builds a routine. Stretching is a great segue into physical touch, and chair massage gets people comfortable with the idea of massage. I do see a progression towards more awareness of the value of massage, but I don’t think residents are choosing to move in because massage is offered.
Nancy: You have a growing role in the investment space. Talk to us about your work with Third Act Ventures and AgeTech Capital.
Sarah: It is an exciting time for the growing longevity economy and all the things we can do to improve the lives of older adults. I am a venture partner with Max Zamkow from Third Act Ventures. He's been a partner of mine with Delight by Design and AgeTech News for a while, and we continue to see the opportunity in early-stage companies that can make a difference. We bet on them early so they can start to grow and succeed in the market.
We need to look global growth and expansion from an investment side as well. So I've joined as a venture partner with AgeTech Capital out of Canada. We are raising a $250 million dollar fund for global impact in investing specifically in the aging and longevity space. It’s exciting to double down on the investment side with both of these funds and be more heavily on the partner side. We need to all support each other in this ecosystem. There's lots of opportunity ahead and opportunities for collaboration as well.
Nancy: What gets you most excited these days?
Sarah: All my worlds are finally coming together, and it's been a long time coming. We've been doing this for 20 years and it's exciting to see people from other sectors and industries become aware of the aging demographic globally and the need to support infrastructures to create a better world for all of us as we age.