Can technology solve the ageing timebomb?

Sunday 18 October, 10.00 until 11.30, Cinema 2, Barbican Battle over Technology

From scandals over the quality of elder care to predictions about the burden that greying baby-boomers will place on future generations, it is easy to lose sight of the success story of individuals living longer and healthier lives. And amid the discussion of how we pay for an ageing society, there is much less debate over what that care looks like. Policy-makers stress the importance of preventative medicine to reduce the need for care, as increases in life expectancy provoke angst about the loss of autonomy as our bodies age. As Oliver Sacks has argued, however, there is a growing perception that ‘we have come to medicalise aging, frailty and death’, rather than focus on how to provide ‘a life with meaning, as rich and full as possible under the circumstances’.

Research in this field has tended to be high-tech, focusing on such things as designing robots to provide nursing care or ‘smart’ homes in which embedded technologies monitor people’s physiological state. Such advances offer significant opportunities for semi-independent care. In theory at least, technology also offers the prospect of more than just physical support, with experimental ‘robot seals’ providing emotional support for dementia-sufferers alongside a variety of tools that help retain mental agility and provide a connection to the outside world. But there are surely ethical questions about outsourcing compassionate care to gadgets. What kind of society is it that has neither the time nor the interest to provide care to its elderly? More prosaically, much of the care needed by older people with chronic degenerative illness is ‘high touch’ – of the kind provided by incontinence teams and district nurses – not ‘high tech’.

Do assisted-living technologies offer a radical transformation in quality of life for the elderly or merely a distraction from the unglamorous challenges of adequate care? Can such advancements challenge our pessimistic view of ageing in society? Will society – or the market - inevitably produce the right solutions to cater for an ageing population, or do we need a shift in cultural outlook? What should be the focus of assisted-living technology if we are to help the elderly to enjoy as full and active a life as possible for as long as possible?

Listen to the debate

Abhay Adhikari
innovation consultant and strategist; founder, Digital Identity

Jobeda Ali
CEO, Three Sisters Care

Maja Kecman
design lead, HELIX, St Mary’s Hospital

Jeannette Pols
professor of social theory, humanism and materialities, University of Amsterdam

Sonia Sodha
freelance policy analyst; Observer leader writer

Dr Frankie Anderson
psychiatry trainee; co-founder, Sheffield Salon

Produced by
David Bowden associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; culture writer
Professor Trisha Greenhalgh professor of primary care health sciences, University of Oxford
Recommended readings
'A robot is my friend': Can machines care for elderly?

With the world's elderly population growing rapidly, scientists are suggesting that robots could take on some of the burden of providing care, support and - most surprisingly - companionship.

Alex Hudson, BBC, 16 November 2013

Can technology fill the elderly care gap?

With the proportion of over-65s on the increase, Britain is facing a crisis when it comes to care of the elderly. Is technology the answer?

Andrew Griffiths, Telegraph, 13 April 2013

The Big-Brother Model of Assisted Living

Sensors installed in nursing homes and even individual residences are helping nurses monitor seniors' health, but questions remain about cost, and privacy.

Michael L Millenson, Atlantic, 11 January 2013

Solving Japan's age-old problem

Soon there will be three pensioners for every child under 15. Now, Patrick Collinson reports, the Land of the Rising Sun is going back to the future …

Patrick Collinson, Guardian, 20 March 2010

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