There could be an estimated 8.6 million people aged 65 or older living in the UK within the next 50 years – an increase which is likely to raise vital questions over care and support of an ageing population.
According to figures from Full Fact, the UK Government currently spends around £149 billion each year on the public provision of health and £22 billion on social care. In addition, over 3.6 million older people now live alone.
Consequently, these statistics have prompted a new generation of British companies to develop innovative technologies to improve and enhance older people’s lives. Mervyn Kohler of Age UK has predicted that robots will be able to assist us with basic daily tasks, such as cleaning – they might even keep us company by reading books and chatting.
Although the market for wearable tech and robots has been dominated by household names such as Samsung, Google, FitBit, Apple, Amazon and even British Gas, startups across the UK are looking at solutions which may allow people to live independently for longer.
Last year, Pepper, a robot created by Japanese conglomerate SoftBank, was trialled in British care homes in order to determine whether it could reduce the workload currently undertaken by nurses and GPs; as well as encouraging owners to wash, dress, eat and drink.
Meanwhile, Sota, a robot companion created by Japanese telecoms company NTT, could be trialled in UK hospitals as early as this year.
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Many UK startups’ ideas are inspired by personal experiences. London start-up Birdie created an app and physical sensors for carers and families that offers real-time monitoring. The app was inspired by the decline of founder Max Parmentier’s grandfather in a care home.
To date, the technology is being used to care for 1,000 people and aims to “radically improve” the lives of one million older adults by 2023, Parmentier claims. So far, it has raised £7m in funding at the end of last year.
Similarly, Manchester startup, Howz, has received funding from the NHS and energy giant EDF to install its discrete sensors in homes around the country – which could also help elderly citizens remain independent for longer.
Howz claims that the sensors can attach to electrical appliances and notify carers if anything appears unusual. The technology can also monitor the temperature and movement in rooms in the event of falls.
Other startups’ primary focus is on the older people themselves. London startup Walk With Path aims to help people with Parkinsons’ avoid falls with sensor-enabled shoes, while Ipswich-based Zone V transforms any smartphone into an easy-to-use device; transforming the interface to provide big letters and a more simplified layout.
However, critics are concerned that the new technology could be used as a replacement for human contact. Dr Bran Knowles of Lancaster University says that people often make the mistake of thinking that designing for older adults is about tweaking an app or a website or making it more accessible.
Whereas in the case of sensor-based technology, privacy is the big issue that older people are concerned about, she says. These startup entrepreneurs firmly believe that the quality of life improvement far outweighs any negatives. Howz founder Jonathan Burr says: “Families that care will put this tech in because they care.
“For those that do, conversations are nicer because you’re not checking up on them. You know they are all right.”