The Pine Bluff Commercial

Toymakers reach out to older folks


NEW YORK — Toymakers are tweaking original classic games or coming out with new ones that embrace an audience that’s been around for a while: people over 65 years old.

The products are being marketed as a way for older folks to sharpen their brain skills as well asallay loneliness by helping them connect with relatives and friends, although some experts have raised doubts about toymakers’ claims.

Toymaker Hasbro penned a licensing deal with Ageless Innovation — which designs toys with older people in mind — to come out with new versions of Scrabble, Trivial Pursuit and Life with a tagline “Generations” that offer larger fonts on tiles and bigger game pieces.

The new “Generations” versions of Life and Trivial Pursuit also have expanded their content to cater to younger and older people alike. For instance, the answer to a question in Trivial Pursuit about fitness can be Jack LaLanne or Zumba, depending on the player’s age. The new offerings hit stores in August in time for the Christmas holiday season.

Educational Insights, which focuses on educational toys for pre-schoolers, is incorporating images of older people in its marketing after noticing last year that its brain twister toys like Kanoodle and BrainBolt were resonating with older customers in online reviews. Next year, it will unveil a new twist called BrainBolt Boost that has bigger buttons and is more simplified.

An app-connected robotic dog called Dog-E from WowWee that was originally marketed to kids and families is finding buzz with the over-65 crowd. So next year, the dog — which can tell the player when it’s hungry, when it wants love or when it wants to play — will see some new twists, including a voice command feature as well as memory games on the app, according to Andrew Yanofsky, WowWee’s head of marketing.

“We continue to think about what are the issues that older adults are facing,” said Ted Fischer, co-founder and chief executive officer of Ageless Innovation, a spinoff of a toy company that Hasbro created in 2015 for older people. “We’re finding joy in play can have meaningful impact.”

The strategies come as the pandemic has changed toybuying habits. Long before the pandemic, many adults turned to toys from Legos to collectible items to tap into their inner childhood for comfort.

But the pandemic not only accelerated and solidified the trend, it also kicked open the door for older adults who were feeling isolated when they were in lockdown. Toy companies claim they found them gravitating toward plush animals and robotic pets as companions.

Market research firm Circana reports that toy sales are increasingly finding adult buyers. Roughly 5% of the total U.S. toys sales are for males ages 35 and over, up 13% since last year. About 4% of total U.S. toys sales are for females ages 35 and over, up 9% since last year.

And while Circana doesn’t tease out that sales data for the 65-plus group, it estimated that those identifying as grandparents who bought a toy for their grandchild in its surveys have big spending power, accounting for a 19% share, or $7.8 billion, of total toy sales in the 12 months ended September. Grandparents spent on average 7% more per toy than the total market during the fourth quarter of 2022, the highest amount spent across all buyer segments. That means toymakers have an interested audience in the toy aisles.

The U.S. toy industry has been in need of a jolt after a weak year, particularly a lackluster Christmas holiday 2022 season. The malaise has continued so far this year, with toy sales in the U.S. down 8% from January through August, based on Circana’s most recent retail-tracking service data.

Ben Swartz, 92, who lives with his 85-year-old wife in a retirement community in Des Moines, Iowa, and who ran a chain of 14 toy stores in the 1970s, has noticed some of the new offerings from the toy industry, and he applauds the moves.

Swartz plays games five days a week, including bridge and poker with his friends, and he said it’s important to keep his mind flexible, otherwise “I would be fearful that my mind would start to go a little bit stale.”

Still, while some scientists welcome toymakers paying attention to older consumers, they also warn of these products’ limitations.

Neil Charness, professor of psychology and a leading authority on aging and cognition, teamed up with Walter Boot, professor of psychology, both at Florida State University, to test the theory that brain games like crossword puzzles help preserve cognitive function and found that people get better in those specific skills if they play over and over again. But it doesn’t translate to the cognitive skills needed for everyday living activities, such as job performance or maintaining independent living, they said.

They also said there’s limited evidence to date that playing games can dramatically reduce loneliness.

“It’s an ageist notion that everything that we design for older adults needs to serve some kind of cognitive purpose instead of just designing games for them to have fun,” Boot said. “And I’m hoping that these companies are doing that: designing games for the sake of leisure and just for the sake of games and not expecting that it’s going to improve X, Y and Z.”