With 5.8M Canadians aged 65+, seniors now outnumber children in this country. It is estimated that by 2041, 25% of Canadians will be over the age of 65.

An aging population presents new challenges for an already struggling healthcare and social service system. Healthcare providers must work even harder and smarter to deliver care and additional resources to a swelling population of seniors without increasing their staff or budgets.

Waterloo Region’s startups are working hard to solve this dilemma, in partnership with healthcare providers, seniors, and their families. Inspired by personal experience with the challenges surrounding senior care, these entrepreneurs are tackling everything from dressing, to medication delivery, to dementia care  – offering innovative solutions that improve care and the quality of life for seniors.

Innovation that improves care and quality of life

“Seniors don’t see themselves as tech users,” says Mary Pat Hinton, founder of Emmetros, a startup focused on streamlining care for people living with dementia. “But then, you ask them if they use the internet, and they say that they do. Then you ask them if they have a smartphone or tablet, and they’ll respond that they do. Then when you ask them if they have apps on their tablets, they’ll say that they do.  By the end of the conversation, we will both be laughing about how they’re just as “techie” as I am!”

Driven by her own personal experience with her grandmother’s dementia, Hinton is fueled by a unquenchable passion to make things better for others afflicted by memory loss. She and her team have built a mobile app, MemorySparx One, that allows people with dementia to organize their days with the support of family members and their care teams. The solution, which will be provided through healthcare partners such as home care service providers and residential retirement homes, will allow people to live more independently.

Sharing Hinton’s passion to help people with dementia, Rachel Thompson a University of Waterloo grad, is bringing the gift of reading back to people living with dementia. After watching her book-loving grandmother lose her ability to read, Rachel set out to solve the problem, founding Marlena Books, a company dedicated to creating simple and accessible reading material tailored for individuals experiencing memory loss. With a mobile-based version of her books now in development, Thompson is gaining traction within long-term care facilities, healthcare enterprises and public libraries.  She also has the pleasure of seeing her tools at work, while watching her grandfather read to his wife. “It’s a true love story,” she says. “He visits and reads to her every day.”

Kristine Goulet, co-founder of Monarch Clothing was both heartbroken and frustrated. Her proud mother, who lived in long-term care, was often dressed in a way that left her looking undignified. The dressing process was painful for her and even once dressed she would continue to seem uncomfortable. Determined to make this daily ritual easier on everyone and bring dignity and fashion back to seniors like her mother, Goulet, a chiropractor, set out to create a new and vastly improved adaptive clothing line. “I knew there had to be a better way. I was determined that no one else should have to experience these same dressing challenges that my mother had”, says Goulet.

Goulet was soon joined in her mission by Pat Quinn, a close friend and experienced business professional who, herself, has an aging mother living with dementia. Together, the two have created Monarch’s unique system of dressing that is much easier to put on and is a time saver for caregivers. Fabrics are chosen specifically to make dressing comfortable and pain-free for wearers while providing the added bonus of being bright, cheerful and fashionable. Monarch recently partnered with long-term care provider Revera’s, Innovation in Aging team, to pilot their adaptive clothing line with some of their residents by organizing a truly memorable fashion event at a Revera home.

Spencer Waugh, CEO and founder of AceAge, is tackling the challenging issue of medication delivery. Sharing a similar story to his fellow entrepreneurs, he watched first hand as his grandfather struggled to stay organized with daily medications. Blister packs and other vehicles used by pharmacies are simply insufficient especially for seniors struggling with cognitive impairment.

AceAge has created Karie, a personal health companion to organize, schedule and dispense life-saving medications, ensuring seniors take the right medication at the right time. The company has partnered with pharmaceutical provider Centric Health as its fulfillment partner in an i2p2 study led by the Centre for Aging + Brain Health Innovation (CABHI). The program will help accelerate the testing and evaluation of products and services designed for aging populations.

“Centric Health was not only a natural choice as they are our strategic partner, but they are a great addition to the team in a clinical research setting, where we will be validating our product,” says Waugh. “We are thrilled to be working with one of the top Canadian pharmacies for safe, secure and high-quality medication dispensing.”

Innovation focused on our aging population takes many forms, but the startups and founders involved share a common inspiration – to engage in patient and caregiver centred design to improve quality of life. They also firmly believe that innovation does not necessarily have to come in the form of a low-tech solution in order to be adopted by seniors. Family members, often middle-aged children, are the ones who will make the purchasing and care decisions, for their parents, and these tech-savvy individuals welcome tech-based solutions. They are also tomorrow’s senior population.  Rachel Thompson explains, “We’re creating solutions that suit the current needs of today’s seniors, but we’re also designing with an eye for future needs.”

The biggest barrier: adoption and scale

Like most startups, companies focused on building solutions for an aging population face challenges of adoption and scale. The health system in Canada is notoriously slow to innovate, which can drive Canadian innovators south of the border into the US in order to gain early market traction. An overcapacity, cash strapped healthcare system has to somehow carve out time and money for innovation. With patient needs rightfully pulling to the forefront, much needed innovation can get left behind. The paradox lies in the fact that investment into innovation can fuel new products, processes, and technologies, that allow our healthcare system to do more with less. More compliance with prescriptions means less visits to the hospital. Better quality of life while living at home rather than in long-term care means shorter wait times for a long-term care bed. Easier dressing and a lower occurrence of pressure sores means personal support workers have more time in their day to assist more patients with quality care.

Supported by the Accelerator Center and its partners including Velocity, Communitech, the Waterloo Wellington Local Health Integration Network, the University of Waterloo and local clinicians, startups such as Emmetros, Monarch Clothing, Marlena Books and Ace Age are creating better supports for seniors and gaining important market traction.

“At the heart of our support system for startups is collaboration,” says Paul Salvini, CEO of the Accelerator Centre.  “Our innovation ecosystem needs clinicians willing to give their time to advise startups and provide access to the problems at hand. We need investors willing to play the long game and provide the capital required for inventory and product development. And we need more champions within service providers and government that actively look for opportunities to connect entrepreneurs, innovative ideas and patient care.  If we are successful, not only will we support entrepreneurs to keep their innovations here in Canada. We’ll create a better quality of life for our grandparents, parents, and a better health system for future generations.