Experts such as Harvard Prof. Calestous Juma believe it’s time that private and public sector innovators turn their ingenuity to adaptive technologies that will make it easier to care for an aging population and make it easier for older people to live independently.
“I think it's quite urgent. If you look at the time horizons involved in getting new products to the marketplace, it takes about 20 years to deliver new products,” Juma said in an interview with CBC News.
“If in 10 years we’re going to have one billion people older than 60 [in developed economies] that means we need to be thinking about these investments now.”
Anupam Pathak, CEO of San Franciso-based Lift Labs has been thinking about this very problem, and has been working towards developing products that will aid people with tremors or Parkinson’s.
Adaptive spoon for people with tremors
Pathak’s first device, shipping since December, is an adaptive spoon that helps counteract a tremor in the hands and make it easier for Parkinson’s sufferers to eat, using similar technology to the image stabilizers in film cameras.
“We really built this working with support groups locally for the past two years,” he told CBC News.
“We connected with the patients and asked ‘what's the first thing you'd like to work on?” A lot of ... them said eating was a big challenge and a spoon would be really great.”
Liftware began with the spoon, but the basic device could be adaptable to many different attachments, Pathak said.
“A lot of things you might take for granted like putting a key into a lock, or picking up small things like pills is a challenge. Grooming is a challenge.… Those are the sorts of things we’re interested in,” Pathak said.
For some users, it means the difference between being able to feed themselves or being dependent on someone else.
“Every week or every two weeks, we get an email how someone's grandmother was able to feed herself for the first time in years, families all emotional about it and that's really what's driving us to continue what were doing,” he said.
Robotics could keep seniors in homes longer
Juma said devices that help people remain at home – possibly as simple as adaptive technology that makes homes safer for the elderly, should be developed and perfected now.
“So the question is how do we meet the shortfall in providing care for the older people because of having younger people looking after more and more older people so we want to harness the power of technological innovation to support the elderly,” he said.
Japan, which already has a large population of elderly, is already investing heavily in robotics so robots can provide some of the support that would normally be given by younger people – for people with a range of disabilities from low vision to mobility issues, to inability to do some of the strenuous tasks involved in keeping up a home.
But there is a mindset in the West that technology is for the young and too little innovation is focusing on adaptive technologies, Juma said.
He points to a Danish experiment by a company called Medisat, which has developed a briefcase that allows doctors to discharge patients early and monitor them while they are at home.
The potential to allow people to recuperate from surgery or illness at home without the need for nursing support has enormous potential to save money and prevent the risk of hospital infection, Juma said.
But he believes governments will have to nudge private sector innovators in the right direction.
“The private sector will be interested, very much interested, but as a seen in the case of Denmark, there is a need to have a partnership with the private and public sector to get these things developed."