Here’s looking at you, gran: the rise of elder tech
For Rita, who turned 101 this year, retaining her independence is crucial. And thanks to innovations in technology she is still able to remain in her own home.
“I wanted some kind of device that would allow me to continue to live the way I want,” she says.
Her grandson came to the rescue, sourcing a tech package that includes “a fall alert, location services and a panic button”, she says.
The desire to access this emerging technology is two-fold. YouGov, which conducted a survey in partnership with IndeMe, a home tech company, found that children and grandchildren overwhelmingly backed the desire of their older relatives to retain their own independence.
Technology is becoming increasingly important, the survey found, with just under two-fifths seeking a similar tech solution to Rita’s — sensors, personal pendants and 24-hour monitoring if required — in their older relatives’ homes to allow them to live independently.
The scale of the innovations available is growing rapidly. Accenture, the professional services company, has just finished a pilot programme of an artificial intelligence-powered platform that allows relatives and care workers to monitor the daily activity of older relatives or friends.
“With the help of Age UK London, we identified the more common challenges of everyday life for older people — from setting daily reminders to the heartache of loneliness — and applied AI to create a human-centred platform to provide support and assistance,” says Laetitia Cailleteau, head of Accenture Liquid Studio London, which aims to help speed up adoption of new innovations.
The government is also taking notice. Age UK estimates that misallocated resources to care for the estimated 11.6m people over the age of 65 currently costs the taxpayer around £173m per year.
Local authorities are particularly keen to act as they are facing growing pressure on their social care budgets.
There are 850,000 people living with dementia in the UK, says John Spence, the cabinet member for health and adult social care at Essex county council. The reality is that most of our lives either have or will be touched by this issue, he says. “Innovation in this area must be nurtured and encouraged.”
One of the key issues is to ensure that older people — the opposite end of the spectrum to “digital natives” who have grown up with the internet and social media — are comfortable with new forms of technology. Concerns remain, however, over whether older people will feel that the tech in their home is less there for their assistance, but more for their children to spy on them. Privacy is a concern, says Panasonic, but “once the elderly participants in the testing were familiar with the technology, many found it comforting – even saying it was like having a friend in the house with them”.
But the signs are promising. Mobile phone penetration, particularly smartphone use, has been rapid among the over-50s, a report from mobiles.co.uk, the mobile phone retailer, suggests.
According to its figures, eight out of 10 smartphone owners aged over 50 do not find their phone confusing. Karen Warren from Hull told Mobiles.co.uk she had bought her first home computer more than 30 years ago. “I know plenty of people older than myself who are happy using computers, phones and social media,” she adds.
This growing acceptance of technology is crucial if some of the simpler aspects can be linked together in what has become known as the “Internet of things”. Hive, which produces smart home devices that can be controlled and monitored remotely, offers a range of subscription packages that link heating, lighting and security aspects to a smartphone — and can also be activated by voice. Home plans cost from £29.99 a month (including a hub, or £26.99 without) with the option to spread the cost of the actual devices over 12 months.
Siemens, on the other hand, predicts that 2018 will be “the year of the Chatbot”, a more sophisticated version of Amazon’s Alexa home assistant.
“People of all ages are now beginning to explore the possibility that they might not only conduct relationships via computers, but, in a very real sense, with them,” says Ruth Marshall-Johnson, Siemens home appliance brand ambassador. At one point, she suggests, the new tech will not only help run the family, but actually become “part of it”.
Siemens is also working as part of a team to develop a Friendly Robot Walker that it aims to sell both to hospitals and families with a targeted price of around €2,000 for private use.
The success of “smart speakers” such as the Amazon Echo (which features virtual assistant Alexa), and the Google Home as domestic personal assistants certainly suggests that we are becoming more comfortable with designating regular tasks to tech — a trend that will become increasingly important as we move into later life.
The rise of ‘elder tech’
”Smart speakers” and home monitoring software are not the only ways that technology is being harnessed to help older people live more independently. HealthUnlocked, for example, is an online social network for people to discuss their health conditions with others who perhaps have similar illnesses. The company says that it has 5m visitors a month, with 25 per cent of users aged over 65.
More ambitiously, Panasonic believes the future lies in robots, which the company says can “provide assistance in a wide range of fields, that are safe to use and offer people peace of mind”.
Japan offers the prime example of how tech can be used to manage the cost of caring for an ageing population — Panasonic has been in the nursing business here for nearly 20 years, working closely with Cisco, the multinational tech company.
“By providing access to wireless video conferences and monitoring devices for carers and family members, both patient health and quality of care can be monitored,” explains Chintan Patel, chief technology officer at Cisco UK.
“As a result, older people can remain self-sufficient for longer periods of time, which we believe is ideal for long-term health.”
Hugo Greenhalgh is the FT’s Wealth Editor