Aging brings with it many changes, often including disability due to frailty or illness. While some seniors are able to care for themselves at home, others experience conditions that constrain their mobility or leave them housebound. In the US and the UK, the most common disability among seniors is constrained mobility.
Despite the prevalence of disability, there is an increasing preference among seniors across the globe to “age in place” by remaining in their homes through the later stages of life instead of moving to institutions, even if they need healthcare or assistance with everyday tasks.
Given many seniors’ preference to age in place and their high rates of mental and physical challenges due to mobility issues, companies have been developing a range of technologies that cater to this population’s needs. Innovative products and services are providing seniors with assistance in mobility and everyday living, helping them keep in touch with family and friends, learn new skills or teach them to others, and pursue hobbies and find companions.
Developments in robotics and smart homes are addressing seniors’ physiological, social and safety needs, while creative virtual-learning networks are helping them learn new things and share their own knowledge. Meanwhile, social networks are helping them find companions, thus helping to meet their social and self-esteem needs. Such technology is not only enabling many seniors around the world to live independently for longer, but also enhancing their quality of life.
THE SILVERS SERIES
The era of the silver generation has arrived. Silvers, or people aged 65 and above, are driving a hugely disproportionate share of consumer-spending growth in many key regions globally. In some markets, they are driving nearly all such growth. This trend will continue for the next 20 years, and it is being fueled by two related forces. The first is demographics, as the silver population is growing considerably faster than other age groups are. The second is economics, as silvers hold a disproportionate share of wealth globally.
The population of silvers aged 65 and over will grow from 8% of the world’s total in 2015 to 13% in 2035, and will account for over one-third of total population growth through 2035, according to the United Nations’ (UN’s) Population Division. The size and growth rate of silver populations—and of the subgroups within them—vary considerably across key regions. By 2035, Japan, South Korea, Western Europe, North America and China will see silvers account for the highest share of their total populations, with seniors comprising more than 20% of the total. India, Southeast Asia and South America still have young populations, and the growth of the silver demographic relative to the rest of the population in these areas will be lower.
Older households tend to be wealthier, when measured by total assets—which is understandable and inevitable, given that most people accumulate assets over their lifetime. What is more interesting is the disproportionate growth in the wealth of senior households seen in some countries. This tipping of the wealth balance from young to old has been fueled by changes such as the degradation of job security and opportunities, and the erosion of compensation and benefits for younger workers. The impact of the economic downturn, whether through government austerity or private sector cutbacks, appears only to have amplified this disparity.
Introduction: tech’s value to mobility-constrained seniors
We live in an age when most of us are almost always digitally connected—either to other people or to some form of media, such as online video content or mobile apps. Although seniors are typically less likely than other age groups to use new technology, the connections it can provide are even more important for them than they are for younger people, as their mobility problems may prevent them from living an active life and interacting often with others face to face. Many new forms of technology can keep housebound seniors in touch: for example, smartphones and tablets allow instant connectivity between people who wish to communicate with each other, putting loved ones and friends just a phone call (or email or chat message) away.
In senior care, technology has found numerous applications that not only enable seniors to get faster and more immediate assistance when needed, but also help them lead a better quality of life. As we showed in our previous reports in the Silvers Series, wearable devices can help seniors monitor their own health and help caregivers track the well-being of those in their care. These devices also fulfill safety and security functions, helping caregivers and others track the whereabouts and activities of the wearer.
This is the third report in our Silvers Series. So far, we have looked at healthcare technology and homecare for seniors. In this report, we examine the technology that is enabling seniors who are mobility constrained due to physical or mental conditions—those who are housebound or otherwise unable to lead fully independent lives—to remain connected and rely less on the assistance of others. Such technology is slowly becoming a welcome addition to seniors’ lives, enabling greater independence and aging in place.
The following sections of this report consider the conditions that may lead to seniors becoming housebound or mobility constrained, the kind of physical and emotional needs that mobility-constrained people have, and the technology that is either already on the market or is being developed to help silvers who have mobility issues. Our discussion of the potential offered by new technologies focuses on five themes:
We define silvers as people aged 65 and above, and the Silvers Series examines the impact this demographic has on various industries and services and on the global economy.
A person’s mobility may be constrained by a disability brought about by an infectious disease, a chronic condition, an injury or frailty that accompanies the natural aging process. In this section, we explore the nature and scale of the mobility-constraint issue.
Before we look at some key figures, it is worth noting that major studies on this issue by the World Health Organization (WHO) and national statistics offices are typically conducted infrequently, so the latest available data are often from several years earlier. Nevertheless, they provide the best available indicators of prevalence.
The WHO’s 2011 World Report on Disability cited a key figure from the organization’s last World Health Survey, which was completed in 2004: 15.6% of the world’s population that year had a moderate to severe disability. That equates to about 650 million people, given that the global adult population was approximately 4.2 billion in 2004. About 248 million people aged 60 and over had a disability in that year, we estimate from the survey, equivalent to 38.1% of all disabled adults. The survey found that disability prevalence among seniors in lower-income countries was much higher than in higher-income countries (43.4% versus 29.5%).
In the US in 2014, about 36% of those aged 65 and over, or approximately 15.5 million people in that age group, reported experiencing some kind of disability. The most common type of disability was mobility or ambulatory difficulty, experienced by 23.0% of seniors, or 3.6 million people, according to the American Community Survey (ACS), conducted by the US Census Bureau.
The second-most-common type of disability was independent living difficulty, experienced by 15.2% of the group. This refers to difficulty with running errands, such as shopping or going to the doctor, alone. Some respondents to the survey reported experiencing more than one disability.
The definitions of the various disabilities used by the ACS are listed below.
In the UK, meanwhile, more than one-quarter of silvers have reported chronic health problems related to their muscles, bones, heart or circulation:
While some people with disabilities may be able to carry out certain activities of daily living on their own, they may need assistance from caregivers or to modify their homes to make them more accessible. As we show later, these two traditional means of assistance have been joined by a series of technological innovations that are allowing disabled silvers to lead more independent lives.
In-home care is becoming more prevalent among those who have long-term health conditions. As we noted earlier, seniors are showing an increasing preference to age in place—to remain in their own homes and receive care there, instead of moving to a residential institution.
In 2013, there were approximately 4.6 million senior long-term care (LTC) recipients, who needed either institutional care or in-home care, in the 10 countries for which the OECD reports such metrics. A majority of these seniors are likely to have experienced some form of mobility constraint.
Changes in the proportion of seniors receiving LTC in either an institution or at home in 2000 versus in 2013 (latest available data) show that there was a considerable shift in the countries examined by the OECD. In fact, the change in the average proportion of seniors receiving in-home care was more significant (a 6.2-percentage-point increase) than the change in the average proportion of seniors receiving institutional care (a 1.8-percentage-point decrease).
As more seniors age in place, many will be living independently. They may not always have access to assistance when they experience difficulties, such as an inability to run errands due to a mental condition, an inability to do regular household chores due to limited mobility, or an inability to be as socially active as they once were. Several studies have indicated that being isolated in later age can have a detrimental effect on a person’s mental and physical well-being, and increase the risk of developing further health conditions.
With people’s needs varying according to their life stage and circumstances, healthcare organizations, social groups and innovators have created products, services and activities that can serve the unique needs of mobility-constrained people, and so facilitate their inclusion in society.
Using psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory as a base, we group the needs of mobility-constrained seniors into four themes, on a scale that runs from basic survival to emotional satisfaction: physiological needs, safety and security needs, social needs and self-esteem needs.
For new concepts, innovations and activities to become popular and successful, they must fulfill these needs of elderly people, helping them lead not only longer lives, but also better-quality lives. In the next section, we consider how new developments are helping silvers lead better lives by fulfilling these various needs.
Advances in robotics and the Internet of Things (IoT), and the widespread use of social media, have contributed to the creation of solutions for seniors. Below, we identify five segments that are catering to silvers in new ways.
The development of robotics for use in assisting seniors has been somewhat limited to date, but there have been a few notable advances in terms of robotic limbs and exoskeletons, as well as in “social” robots:
Japanese company Cyberdyne is trialing robotic arms and legs that can be fitted onto a person/part of the body that is disabled in order to enable the person to move independently and carry out activities of daily living on their own.
A group of scientists from seven universities across the UK is working on smart/robotic trousers and socks that enable mobility in vulnerable seniors and disabled people. The trousers will use a combination of bionics, reactive polymers and artificial “muscles” to help the user move independently and reduce the chance of falling.
Honda has developed a humanoid robot called Asimo, whose applications range from industrial uses—it can function as a warehouse assistant that lifts and moves heavy loads—to being a home helper. It is also designed to help pick up and store things, turn switches on and off, and push doors and carts.
The Riken institute in Japan has also developed a humanoid robot, one whose primary function is to assist disabled and older people. The Robear nursing-care robot can help lift people from a bed and place them in a chair or in a bath, and vice versa.
Mainstream mobile phones, tablets and computers usually come loaded with so many features and applications that some seniors feel overwhelmed by them. To better meet silvers’ need for technology solutions, some companies have developed hardware and software specifically for the senior population, allowing them to connect with others around the world and view content that interests them. Notable players in this market include:
Several initiatives have been developed that enable seniors to continue learning as they age. Still others help seniors teach other people through virtual learning centers, either from their home or from a residential care facility.
Social networks are usually developed to connect people who may have common interests or to help them stay in touch with friends or other contacts. Adjacent to the social network space are online platforms for companionship and dating. While there is nothing to exclude seniors from using popular social networks such as Facebook, there are a number of social media applications that have been specifically designed for seniors:
Smart Homes: Assisting Independent Living
Sensors and the IoT are finding numerous applications in senior care, and are particularly helpful for patients with dementia, who may need to be reminded to take their medication or turn off appliances. Smart devices can also notify caregivers about seniors’ safety and whereabouts.
Most smart devices in a connected home, such as security cameras, fridges, lights, thermostats and TVs, can be programmed to function in a manner suitable to the person living in the home. They can help keep seniors safe and reduce their dependence on assistance from caregivers. Products and systems in the smart home segment include:
More and more seniors want to be able to age in place, to remain in their own homes as they age, even if they are not able to care for themselves. The opportunities to serve this group are not confined to providing care services. New technologies can play a significant role in raising the standards of everyday life for mobility-constrained seniors:
Technologies designed for the silvers market can be particularly effective at addressing the serious issue of social isolation that can arise from being housebound or mobility constrained. Such isolation has numerous effects on one’s physical, mental and emotional well-being, which can lead to faster deterioration of health and result in illness. In more-developed economies, technology is virtually breaking down the walls for housebound seniors. In developing economies, where obtaining basic care and essential needs such as food, water and clothing is often more difficult, such technology is unlikely to be used to help the housebound in the near future.