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Designing inclusive solutions for an ageing population

with Eric Kihlstrom, UK Ambassador at Aging 2.0

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We may be living longer, but that doesn’t mean we’re ageing well.

Thanks to medical advancements, people now have longer life expectancies, albeit living with more medical conditions. In the UK, the average 75-year old has seven conditions. As the ageing population grows, there is an increasing need for senior adults to be able to live at home without resorting to social care.

Besides easing financial pressure for government healthcare systems like the UK’s National Healthcare System (NHS), the majority of elderly people do not want to live in formal care—90% of older people surveyed by the NHS prefer to stay at home.

Supporting the older population in ageing at home also means designing user-friendly products that improve their quality of life and help them stay independent and safe. But how do we make that happen?

In this episode of HeathRedesigned, we chat with Eric Kihlstrom, the UK ambassador of Aging2.0, a global volunteer network that supports innovators and entrepreneurs who are taking on the challenges of ageing. He’s also a Co-founder of KareInn, a startup that wants to improve quality of life for our parents generation. KareInn builds software to help carers be more productive and use data to deliver more personalised care.

A growing need for more senior care

One of the big problems we’ve got, especially in the UK, is that people’s care needs aren’t being met. Why do you think that is?

The fundamental issue is that the promises the government has made to society around health and social care are just unachievable at this point in time. There are people who are living longer and need to leave the hospital when they’re healthy but don’t have a place to go. There are three million delayed discharge days in the NHS because social care can’t handle it.

Residential or formal care has almost become medicalised in the sense that people have much more acute conditions. They are putting a lot of pressure on the residential care system and people don’t want to go into formal care. So the question is, how do you give people what they want and make it a win for everyone else in the stakeholder chain—from the government to social care and the NHS?

Do you see this being a solvable problem if there is enough funding?

Even if we threw enough money at it, it’s still a challenge because more people are living longer with more conditions. So the question is how do we redesign? It’s something that we have to solve. We spent tens of millions of pounds over the past 10 to 15 years trying to address this particular challenge and we’ve learned a lot since. What I’m trying to do with Aging2.0 is reflect some of that learning in what we share with entrepreneurs by getting them to solve the right problems.

Lots of our entrepreneurs and solutions come from a place of caring and passion. They may have an adult parent who gets Alzheimer’s and go on to create a solution to address quality of life for that individual or they have diabetes or a fall and they create a really great solution—but these solutions aren’t scaling.

“Part of the issue is there's not enough happening from a design perspective.”

A lot of what is designed today to monitor older people and help them stay independent is ugly and we need to make them more attractive. But we also need to think about the proposition to the older person. There are nearly 12 million people over 65 in the UK and less than two million of them use these kinds of care products. 9 out of 10 of them aren’t interested because they’re stigmatising, ugly and as soon as you sell something as a senior product, older people don’t want it.

Do you think other countries have successfully overcome this problem?

I think there are very interesting things happening in Singapore. They provide money and focus to this and are able to coordinate things in a way that we’re not able to do over here. But I don’t think they’ve solved the design question. A lot of what they come up with are sort of ‘big brother’ monitoring solutions. We need to do more to help people age in place with dignity and confidence rather than have more personal emergency response systems (PERS) which people wear occasionally but often don’t when they go out because they don’t want to be seen wearing it. Therefore, it negates any positive effect it should be delivering.

There’s also a lot to learn from what’s happening in the Netherlands. WCS Care in the UK recently adopted a technology to help people sleep better at night called acoustic monitoring. It’s reduced falls and cost and results in happier residents. It’s been in use in the Netherlands for over 25 years and we’re only now implementing it here.

But again, I think we’re living in an incredible time, especially with what’s happening with voice assistance whether it’s Google Home, Siri or Amazon Alexa. There are new opportunities with technology and data to deliver consumer products at a lower cost than what they’ve been doing in the Netherlands. We need to design products that are not stigmatising—what I would call ‘ageless design’ that anyone would want to buy.

Designing with inclusivity in mind

Do you think designing more attractive products is going to solve the adoption issues we have with older people right now?

If you look at the iPad, 51% of people over 65 have it. It’s been a product that older people are adopting, but they’re adopting it with the rest of the UK.

I’m also inspired by the way the Ford Focus was designed. Designers used something called the Third Age Suit when designing it. The suit made it difficult to bend your knees or elbows or turn your head. They made a well-designed car because it was something that was appropriate for older people—but it’s sold as a younger person’s car. And they’ve been extremely successful. If it’s well-designed, people, including older people will buy it.

Opportunities for technology & data to help people age in place

A lot of what you’re interested is in how we use data. If there are lots of people building great products which are tracking data, how do you see it being used to solve issues around care? Is this something that only large organisations like Google can do because they have the scale and resources or is this something smaller companies or startups can tackle as well?

This is a startup opportunity, absolutely. The big data monopolies like Google, Facebook and Amazon are capturing lots of data, but they’re not interested in your health and care particularly when it comes to the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). If they mishandle health or social care data, their global revenues of two to three percent of turnover is at risk.

It’s just not worth it for those big data monopolies to innovate in that particular space. Small companies have the potential to build on these platforms. For example, some startups in the Aging2.0 community capture data from voice assistance with proper consent. We have to address all of the GDPR issues, but with the appropriate consents, data security and privacy in place, that data is handled in an ethical way.

In the US, there’s a group called Epic that makes Electronic Medical Records (EMR). They’re changing that to Comprehensive Health Records (CHR) which includes medical and some consumer data. For me, the long-term vision is around bringing this together for a more holistic perspective.

So, for instance, if someone consents to have some of their voice assistant data go to their circle of care, it could indicate that this individual is not socially engaged or potentially mentally at risk and that could be a way of helping that person. Someone could come by and help that individual before they present themselves in NHS with a fall or some other episode and potentially wind up in social care.

There’s also something called data philanthropy that is important for these new models of care. If someone gives their data to Google, why can’t they donate it to charity around dementia research, for instance?

“If you're going to give your data to Facebook, why not also donate that for research into mental health? You're giving it to a corporation, what's wrong with giving it to charity?”

Do you think that ageing is a sector that’s under recognised in terms of opportunity and is that something that you think is changing?

There is this notion that ageism is not a sexy problem. I do think there is a growing awareness of opportunity. 80% of the UK’s wealth is in the over 50s. Don’t you want a piece of that market? To design a product that is age inappropriate or isn’t easy for the over 50s, 60s and 70s to use is a big miss in their particular market.

I think corporates are beginning to get the issue. Procter and Gamble just launched a razor called TREO. It’s quite compelling but P&G thinks they’ve got a new product category. Pension funds have also been looking at these issues for a long time and financial institutions are very curious about this.

I do believe that if you create something that everyone will buy, older people will also buy it. Look at tablets, cars and voice assistance. I spoke to someone recently who’s buying an Amazon Echo for everyone in his family for Christmas, including the over 65s because it’s so easy to interface with and a well-designed product.

“If you want to design for a very narrow niche market—the 20 and 25s, go ahead. But you're missing 80% the UK's wealth.”

There’s 67 million people in the UK, don’t you want 12 million of them as potential customers? That’s what’s on offer. Just make it easy to use and appealing. People say that older people don’t get it and that we need to train them. I think that’s completely wrong. It’s a failure of the product designers, the software developers and the UX designers to create something that has an ageless design. It’s a failure of design and a failure of imagination to go after 12 million customers who are out there and shouldn’t be that hard to accommodate. Don’t blame your customer. Design it for all of your customers.

For designers, developers and companies in London who are looking for support and investment for products that improve the lives of older adults, do join the Agetech London Hub weekly event at the Innovation Warehouse every Tuesday or check out Aging2.0’s London Grand Challenge launch, happening this March.

Connect with Aging2.0: