Amazon employees went on a cross-country bus tour to learn about aging Americans

Key Points
  • Amazon has been interested in developing technologies for aging populations since at least 2016.
  • That's when several of its top employees went on a bus tour around the country, according to people familiar.
  • They visited Pittsburgh, Indiana and Kentucky.
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Amazon's vice president of special projects Babak Parviz has long been interested in designing technologies and other services for the growing aging population.

So he went on a cross-country bus tour to learn all about it.

In spring 2016, Parviz got an invitation from well-known geriatric medicine expert and author Bill Thomas to hop on a multi-city bus tour. Thomas has been working on-and-off as a consultant for Amazon, said two people familiar with the situation. Other folks on Parviz's team were also invited to join.

The bus ride was positioned as an opportunity for Parviz and his colleagues to learn more about opportunities in aging from a broad range of experts. Thomas had originally organized it to promote his latest book about getting a "second wind" of health and enthusiasm later in life.

Amazon has good reason to listen up. More than one million Americans reside in assisted-living facilities today, a number that is expected to double by 2030. And many Amazon users are getting older, sicker and wealthier, making health and senior care an ideal target for the company.

The trend towards so-called "aging in place," which gives older Americans an opportunity to remain at home, also provides opportunities to develop monitoring gadgets and sensors, which could tie in with Amazon's Echo line of products and Alexa personal assistant.

When asked about the bus tour, an Amazon spokesperson said, "At Amazon, we obsess over all of our customers. We frequently seek diverse outside perspectives to help us meet and exceed customer needs." Bill Thomas did not respond to requests for comment.

What was discussed

Parviz joined Amazon from Google's secret research and development group, Google X, in 2014 and now leads a top-secret team that has variously been called "Amazon X," "Grand Challenges" and "1492." The projects and mission of that team are under wraps, but CNBC reported that many of the hires have a background in health care.

During the 2016 tour, Parviz and other Amazon employees made stops in Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio and Pittsburgh and met with seniors, doctors, geriatricians, and thought leaders in the area of aging and others. One of the stops included a visit to Thomas' Green House Project, which offers residential-style homes for older Americans as an alternative to the traditional nursing home.

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According to AARP, a group that represents the interests of older Americans, more than 90 percent of seniors would prefer to remain in their home rather than relocate to a nursing home or assisted living facility. (Amazon also met with AARP, sources say.)

At least three people in the aging space who have met with Amazon on the bus tour, or at one of several meetings convened by the company after the tour was done, say that they talked about the current crop of technologies for aging populations, the competitive landscape, the financial opportunities and the special needs of seniors that are distinct from the general population.

The people said they also threw out ideas for how the current crop of Amazon products could be adapted to people over 65, such as delivering groceries, medical supplies and other goods in a clearly labeled way (Amazon today doesn't deliver prescription medicines). They also discussed putting together special packages for people after a medical procedure, delivered via Prime, like a hip or knee replacement.

Alexa could be another area of focus. Amazon this week released a version of its Alexa device designed for kids, but it's long been expected to unveil a similar set of features for older Americans. Some older Americans who have played with it have expressed frustrations about the voice assistant, including that Alexa speaks too quickly. According to Stat News, one group of nursing home residents that reported to Amazon that its deep voice wasn't ideal for people with hearing aids.

But it wasn't just a discussion of new products and business models. On the tour, attendees also talked to Amazon about the loneliness and isolation felt by older Americans.

That seemed to have struck a nerve with Amazon's executives.

"Something...we've been building for some period of time and we deeply care about... relates to what happens to older people," said Parviz, the company's vice president of special projects, at an event a few months ago, three years after the tour wrapped up.

"We have looked at the older population in the context of health... and we know this group has a lot of issues and unmet needs," he said.

Correction: The original version of this story misstated the year that the bus tour took place. It was in 2016. There was a separate tour in 2014 that inspired the 2016 tour, but the 2014 tour did not include Amazon employees.

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