Thanks to medical advancements and a higher standard of living, people in the UK are living longer. In 2016, 18 per cent of us were 65 or over. According to forecasts by the ONS in its Overview of the UK Population published last year, by 2036, this will have risen to 24 per cent. Coupled with a forecast 14 per cent population increase, this presents significant new challenges to policymakers.
Some of these challenges are obvious: how will local authorities tackle the increasing demand for social care? How will hospitals train sufficient medical staff to care for a growing number of elderly patients? Other challenges are more subtle: how can we ensure a high quality of life for an aging population? How can technology be used to help?
The government is looking to answer these questions, and more, through the Ageing Society Grand Challenge, published in the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s Grand Challenge Missions. This is one of the four big questions set out in the Industrial Strategy – the government’s plan to boost productivity and increase people’s earning power. The aim of the Grand Challenge is to “ensure that people can enjoy at least five extra healthy, independent years of life by 2035, while narrowing the gap between the experience of the richest and poorest”. In other words, the emphasis is on tackling quality of life challenges for people over 65 across all socio-economic groups.
Breaking this challenge down, there are some key points to consider. First, if people are going to have an extra five years of life, they should be able to enjoy them. Second, the “healthy, independent years” tackle the first two problems outlined in this article. Third, “narrowing the gap” is vital – many of the methods of delivering these benefits will be technological. Technology has, historically, often been the domain of the wealthy. To overcome this challenge, people of all economic backgrounds must be able to take advantage of the benefits on offer, not just the rich.
At Vodafone, we believe that all of this is obtainable. Indeed, much of this technology is available today. Technology that encourages independent living. Technology that helps to prevent illness. Technology that tackles loneliness.
Restoring personal independence
Restoring a sense of personal independence is a key issue for older people. Everyday self-care tasks like taking a bath, getting dressed and having a meal can be difficult without a helping hand. Indeed, 21 per cent of men aged over 65 need help with at least one of these kinds of tasks, and that percentage is even higher among women, according to recent research carried out by Age UK.
Providing care for people in this position is expensive. Indeed, 80 per cent of the average elderly care budget is spent on the 10 per cent in the most need. How can we keep people from needing this support for as long as possible? How can we reassure them and their families that they can live their lives knowing that, if they need it, help is on the way?
This is where internet of things (IoT) technologies like remote support can help. Remote monitoring sensors can ensure that friends and loved ones are alerted when there is an emergency. They can also be used to collect vital data that enables preventative action. Products like Vodafone’s new V-SOS wristband notifies family members if the wearer suffers a fall. There is also an emergency button that the wearer can press if they need assistance.
Other remote monitoring products alert family members if the bathroom light isn’t switched on in the morning, or if the kettle hasn’t been used, as this may indicate a problem. Companies like Republic of Things in Manchester will monitor the environment, humidity and movement in a home. If the temperature drops significantly, or if humidity reaches a level at which bacteria can start to grow, the relevant team in the local authority is notified so that a home visit can take place.
The benefits of this kind of support are twofold. First, people can live their life as they choose, knowing help will arrive if it’s needed. They don’t have to feel like they are constantly being checked up on.
Second, stretched council resources are eased, as caseworkers can make visits where they are needed, rather than on a set timetable.
Fostering a sense of community
Another real challenge for older people is loneliness and social isolation. Those who are less able to leave their home, or who live far away from friends and family, may find themselves with fewer opportunities to talk to people or play an active role in their community. But thanks to video chat, voice controlled devices or even a transportable robot head, such as devices developed by Norwegian startup No Isolation, it’s becoming easier and easier to stay connected to those you love, and to make new friends.
Giving elderly people freedom in their own homes, family members peace of mind, and carers a more targeted and responsive schedule can only make life easier, and more enjoyable for all three. There’s work to do for industry and policymakers to support people and communities in the uptake of these new technologies but, working together, we can deliver a real improvement in people’s lives.
Anne Shehan is enterprise director at Vodafone UK.