Innovation via the silver screen: Aging - Hollywood style

The movie business - or at least a part of it, unlike much of the rest of business community - is proving to be both smart and sensitive in dealing with the aging population. Aware that shoot-em-up movies are unlikely to appeal to this demographic, there have been a slew of excellent movies recently that feature older actors and the issues associated with aging in a thought-provoking way. I caught up with two of them - Robot and Frank and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel over the break, and hope to see Oscar-nominated Amour soon.

Frank and Robot is about a too-smart-by-half home-health-aid robot who becomes aging jewelry thief Frank’s light-fingered accomplice, while The BEMH is about a group of cash-strapped Brits who outsource their retirement to a not-all-it's-cracked-up-to-be retirement home in India. Both movies star older people who deliver Oscar-worthy performances, and deftly treat some thunderingly important issues with insight, tact and humor. This isn't a movie review, but a quick recap of some of the interesting innovation-related issues raised in the films.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
Takeaway: "the future's not what you expect, but it doesn't have to be all bad"

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  • Outsourcing retirement: For these characters, it’s too expensive to age in the western country they grow old in. So they’re the cutting edge of what will no doubt be a big trend – moving abroad for the final years.

  • Digital divide: Plenty of evidence of how difficult it is for seniors to use even seemingly simple technology.

  • End of life / family planning: Judy Dench’s character has to deal with figuring out how to manage affairs when her husband – who ran everything – dies. Brutally insensitive service companies with their scripted interactions don’t help much.

  • The Rise of India’s middle class (and the decline of the British one) – ironically powered by English-speaking call centers, India’s new found middle class is bustling, and even provides jobs for the struggling Brits.

  • Taking advantage of the elderly: Although Dev Patel as the hotel proprietor doesn’t have a single cynical cell in his body, it’s just a short leap from his character to an unscrupulous shyster parting unsuspecting seniors from their cash.

  • Reverse innovation: how developing countries are leap-frogging the west when it comes to innovation.

  • On the need for PERS innovations: Commenting on a panic button placed on the wall "As long as such a fall happens to occur right next to the panic button."

  • Recognizing the role of strong women – fabulous performances by some of the best female talents of UK acting (Maggie Smith, Judy Dench, Celia Imrie, Penelope Wilton) and upcoming Indian starlet Tena Desae.

  • Bonus: Best quote ever for handling chaos - courtesy of Dev Patel: "Everything will be all right in the end... if it's not all right then it's not yet the end."

Robot & Frank
Takeaway: Skillfully raising tough questions as technology, demographics and culture collide.

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  • Isolation: A growing challenge of loneliness and the need for some kind of monitoring, especially as families are dispersed.

  • Substitution: Ever smarter technology - such as these robots - can start to replace home aides, and do things they would never do.

  • Dementia: Hard to diagnose, and a subtle, not binary shift from 'healthy' to 'crazy'.

  • Later life romance: Perils and stumbles, similar to people 50 years their junior.

  • Morality: Do / should robots have a conscience.

  • Morality 2: Can someone be annoying enough to deserve to be stolen from?

  • Regret and personal journeys: Do people ever change?


This week, when everyone comes back from the holiday break determined to be capital P productive, is not the best time to suggest taking time off to watch movies. However, that’s exactly what I’m going to recommend; watching these movies has given me useful insight into some of the issues we're confronting every day as innovators in the aging space. Enjoy.



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