Lessons from Singapore on how tech can help the elderly thrive
Jan. 18, 2020
One in six people will be aged 65+ by 2020. Sensor systems can now be installed to monitor wellbeing in own home. Some concerns over privacy or personal security will need to be overcome.
Aw Wah Peng has been living alone ever since his wife died in 2008. And he likes it that way . Like many people, he doesn’t want his advancing years to affect his independence. He doesn’t particularly feel the need to interact with others and wants to hold off interventions from the care system for as long as he can.
But he can only do this thanks to the unobtrusive technology throughout his apartment. He lives in one of 50 social housing flats in east Singapore that have been set up as smart homes for the elderly.
More wrinkles, more strain on governments
As the world ages – by 2050, one in six people will be over the age of 65 – this “ageing in place” is going to be a key to easing the pressure on governments to look after its elderly. And technology is going to be at the crux of the solution.
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Globally, the growing number of elderly people is a defining issue of our time. UN estimates see the population of older people growing faster than all other age groups. For the first time ever, people over 65 now outnumber children under 5.
Healthcare systems around the world face a daunting challenge. This is not an issue limited to low-, middle-, or high-income countries. A 2018 report from the EU estimated the total cost of ageing is likely to hit 26.7% of GDP by 2070 – that’s a rise of 1.7 percentage points from 2016. And much of this additional expense will be driven by healthcare and long-term care costs. Meanwhile in the US, national health expenditures will climb to almost a fifth of GDP by 2027.
Technology that promotes independence
The system Uncle Aw, as he likes to be known, uses is part of a collaboration between Singapore Management University and Tata Consultancy Services (TCS). Known as SHINESeniors, it relies on a system of sensors which monitor both the physical environment of his home – temperature, noise, and more – and his daily living patterns. It’s part of a government initiative to reinvent urban planning, centring it around using technology to create a more inclusive society.
The system picks up any variation from the norm – such as periods of inactivity which could indicate a fall – and alerts caregivers to intervene. Using this data over time means that any changes in elderly people’s wellbeing can be picked up before they get worse.
The strength of such systems is in their ability to be personalized, using data to work out what is ‘normal’ for each individual. But sensitive management of this data is also crucial, with security considerations front of mind in the initial design process. While older generations are increasingly adopting technology, they have concerns about new technology’s potential to disrupt their privacy and the potential for invasions of personal and financial security.
There are also trials underway that use a sensor-enabled medication box to track whether elderly people are following their prescriptions.
The technology helps the older people to live independently while also providing a valuable safety net, avoiding the need for institutionalized care until absolutely necessary. Just as importantly, it’s a scalable solution.
And the benefits of such technology extend beyond healthcare. With social isolation and loneliness being one of the biggest issues many elderly people face, it allows them to continue to live in their local community.
Builds more inclusive societies
Singapore is among those leading the way with smart city technology. Take, for example, the government’s RoboCoach – which is helping older people stay fit and healthy with personalized exercise regimes.
But as the impact of the ageing demographic starts to be felt, there is a growing focus around the world on the power of technology to enable independence and promote inclusion. There’s Paro, a seal-shaped therapeutic robot aimed at reducing stress among older people. Baxter, a robot with mechanical arms which could help the elderly get dressed . And even a ‘tail’ that could help prevent falls by improving balance.
And over at the Georgia Institute of Technology, they have built the Aware Home , a smart tech-enabled residential laboratory. Since 1998, researchers from across disciplines have been looking into how new technologies can impact the lives of people at home in areas including health and wellbeing, digital media and entertainment and sustainability. Among the ideas they’ve come up with are a stove with large coloured lights that blink if it’s left unattended – and a photo frame near the front door that plays a sound if you try to leave while the stove is still on. And in the hallway there is gait-sensing technology that analyzes walking patterns and could use this personalized data to track health – and alert caregivers of any changes.
TCS is continuing to invest in research in this field, recently signing a memorandum of understanding with organizations including Dublin City Council, Maynooth University and energy company ESB Ireland to work towards improving care in the country through technology.
A technology-enabled future
As we go headlong into the Fourth Industrial Revolution, technology of this type will be a vital tool in achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and ensuring no one is left behind.
For every year ahead, close to one million Europeans will be added to those requiring elderly services. To meet this challenge European countries will need to re-imagine the healthcare and social services provided to senior citizen by creatively leveraging digital technology and accelerating innovation through public-private-academia partnerships, similar to the Singapore SHINESeniors model.
At TCS we strongly believe that digital technologies provide us with a game changing toolbox to address several social challenges in our society and empower people. Ultimately, all this requires is translating the same power of entrepreneurship and innovation so prevalent in business into the social care and community space.