Are robots the solution for helping Asia’s elderly?
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Are robots the solution for helping Asia’s elderly?

JAPAN is known for the longevity of its population. But the fact of a rapidly ageing population poses its own economic problems for the country, problems which may be alleviated by technology.

With population numbers falling as modern work patterns take their toll on the average Japanese couple, and the number of elderly rising as a proportion of the overall population (already 20 percent of people are over 65), caring for the elderly threatens to cripple the country’s economy.

At recent trade shows held in Japan, several manufacturers showcased new products based on another aspect of the country for which it is renowned: technology.

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Technology could help an increasingly elderly APAC population when carers can’t. Source: YouTube/Plastic Pal

It is estimated that the world’s care industry is worth US$450 billion a year. And this amount looks set to rise as the proportion of old to young weighs even more heavily towards the elderly in more countries across the globe.

Technology has its role to play in this situation, and this is the lucrative market that many developers are interested in.

In robotics, for instance, wheelchairs that can turn into beds are available, as are machines that will help infirm individuals in and out of bed, or onto the lavatory.

The Internet of things (IoT) is also playing a part, with a company using a series of on-body sensors to measure exercise regimes for old people, which are monitored by apps — setting goals and providing feedback.

Simple exercises that mimic everyday activities such as sitting & standing, and stepping in and out of a bath, can be practised and the relevant muscle groups strengthened.

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The Japanese are having fewer children per couple, exacerbating the population’s aging problem. Source: Reuters

This type of activity would normally be carried out by a carer: by allowing the elderly care-receiver to effectively exercise themselves (albeit with electronic monitoring) the carer can be given a few precious minutes off. Given that many carers are unpaid family members, this is highly valuable.

A further problem in the country may be alleviated by the use of remote sensors and simple wireless routers: in Japan, it is estimated that some 10,000 elderly dementia patients go missing from their carers temporarily, each year.

If a dementia sufferer is equipped with a small tag, when he or she passes in the vicinity of one of the omnipresent drinks vending machines that are such a feature of Japanese public spaces, the tag is detected by a wireless router on the machine and software informed.

The centralised code then contacts local taxi companies and the patient’s friends and family. An empty taxi can then be alerted, and in the community spirit which is another mainstay of Japanese culture, the driver asked to take the patient back to their home.

The Asahi soft drinks company, who are funding this particular initiative, regard this as part of their giving-back to the community that supports it.

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People take a break on bench seats at Tokyo’s Sugamo district, an area popular among the Japanese elderly, in Tokyo August 29, 2014. Source: Reuters/Issei Kato

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In Japan, there have been some changes apparent in working patterns that have helped alleviate the care shortfall, including the willingness of many ‘younger’ retirees (the legislated age of retirement is currently 60) to start new careers as carers.

But the International Monetary Fund recently issued a warning to Asian countries to be wary of Japan’s trajectory of “getting old before getting rich.”

Last year a UBS report showed changing attitudes toward work and gender roles could lead a number of industrialised Asian nations to face a similar situation to Japan’s.