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Karina's Column

An insider’s view on the City of London and beyond

A New Age for Old Age


The latest tech innovations

Dimmed lights are reflected on the heated sea water in the indoor pool, while New Age music wafts across the cavernous room. Aged bodies advance in slow motion from jet to jet, allowing each one to massage a different part of their arthritic bodies, while chatting desultorily with each other and with Nikkos, the Greek God of a lifeguard.

This vision of the future, courtesy of a thalassotherapy spa holiday near Athens, shocked me into a personal awareness of how the population of the world’s major economies is ageing, notably in Europe, Japan, China and the US. And what a wealth of opportunities and challenges arise out of it.

People over 60 are set to become the world’s fastest growing cohort. By 2050 there will be 2 billion of them. Their participation in the workforce will be crucial to make up for fewer working-age adults. For this to happen, more flexibility will be needed in the world of work, whose practices too often continue to be hidebound by tradition.

Adapting the tools of work is also vital. Sixteen-year old students at a recent workshop at ADA, the National College for Digital Skills in London, experimented with taping three of their fingers together and wearing dark glasses while trying to use a normal keyboard. The simulation of old age travails will undoubtedly lead to breakthroughs in workable technology.

In any case muscle weakening, for instance, will not be an irreversible effect of age. The Olympic-contest handshake between French President Emmanuel Macron and US President Donald Trump was won by the younger man. No surprise there. But bionic inserts, created using 3-D printing, are on the horizon.

Blurring science fiction and reality, Bristol-based Open Bionics creates 3D-printed robotic hands for amputees, mainly children. One child asked them for a pocket to store his iPhone on his bionic arm. In a few years, one can visualise an older person who has lost the use of their arms due to, say, Parkinson’s, asking for an app to be downloaded into their arm which would call their carers when they had a severe fall. (In fact, the latter already exists, albeit on an iPhone, not inserted into a body.)

Later that day at the spa, gently perspiring in a sticky seaweed wrap, I reflected that in 500 BC Greek physician Hippocrates came up with a revolutionary focus on preventing sickness instead of simply treating disease. The older people at the spa (and those of us who meander in the middle-age range) were doing just that. Monitoring our health is becoming normal through Fitbit and other wearable devices, while exciting apps are being developed that can tell when a depressive episode is about to happen or when a heartbeat is out of sync, as seen in the Flying Health incubator in Germany.

Robots will undoubtedly help with old age. Yet the warmth of human interaction is invaluable. Penelope, one of the personal trainers at the spa and the living image of a koure (temple maiden), led a keep-fit class in the pool and her smile, surely, encouraged us more than any robotic voice could have. In any case, the human/tech interface is emerging as the most productive piece of the puzzle in our new world. Take Vida, a start-up funded by Hambro Perks which aims to disrupt the carer market. The app lets customers book carefully vetted carers and includes capabilities like setting the tasks they are to accomplish. It sees itself as the Uber of carers.

Mental stimulation is essential both to quality of life and to being a productive member of society. Tech devices will help deal with, and possibly reverse the decline in our mental capacity as we age – but nothing can be as stimulating to our brains (and souls) as using our professional capabilities to help society. This can be seen through the work of United Nations Volunteers. Assignments can range from advising on dam building to editing a newspaper in Haiti or changing laws in Vietnam. There is also online volunteering in areas like proposal writing or social media management for an organisation in Cameroon. The UN is visionary is in not having any upper age limit for the skilled individuals it seeks, thus appealing to retired professionals, amongst others.

In fact, the Odyssean saga of Greek debt forgiveness/restructuring/bailout, which dominated the local papers during our stay, would assuredly benefit from the advice of old hands who dealt with the Latin America or Asian debt crises.

Touring the fascinating Acropolis Museum with my elegant 85-year old mother stuck in the customary wheelchair at groin height, I mused on the business opportunity in creating one that would allow the occupant to be at the proper viewing height for the exhibits. But an ageing population is not all about opportunities. It is just as much about facing up to the challenges and the biggest one is financing, not easy for politicians.

The difficulty of so doing became apparent as we landed in London to find that Prime Minister Theresa May had done a U-turn on a new policy to make pensioners pay more for their care. It needed more work, but the basic premise that more funds were needed was accurate. However, even on the funding side there are new ways of doing things, in this case using data to come up with risk-pooling initiatives via cloud communities, as mentioned in more detail in a FT piece.

To the young out there, embrace the older generation for their wisdom and experience; to the middle-aged and old, fear not advancing age but grasp it with the strength of a Hercules.

*Open Bionics and the Flying Health incubator both gave presentations at the fascinating annual Global Female Leaders Summit 2017 in Berlin. I am a member of the Advisory Board. The next one is April 23-25, 2018.