Industry, Institutions, and Governments Brace for the “Silver Tsunami” Impact

It’s not easy being a government minister in charge of the aged in Asia. Asia’s furious development and urbanization in the past thirty years has led to falling birth rates as people compete for space and financial resources in increasingly crowded megacities. Meanwhile, the rapid advancement of medical care across the Asia-Pacific region has caused life expectancies to soar.

Due to declining birth rates, there will be fewer people entering the workforce or have the ability to provide care for the number of aged. Most reports have Asia facing a “grey tsunami” over the next few decades.

Projections from the United Nations Population Division show the proportion of seniors aged sixty five and older will surpass the proportion of children (aged zero to fifteen) in South Korea, Thailand, and China by 2030. Vietnam and Malaysia, meanwhile, will cross this threshold by 2040 and 2050 respectively.

According to a report in the Asia Nikkei Review, Japan’s old age dependency ratio, or ratio of elderly people as a share of those who are working age, more than doubled since 1995 and is predicted to rise to seventy two percent by 2050. China’s proportion of workers per older citizen is predicted to drop from eight to 2.6 within the same time period, while South Korea’s dependency ratio will rise fivefold to about sixty five percent.

In Singapore, Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said in a budget speech in 2014 that the Singapore government’s projected healthcare spending is expected to triple to twelve billion Singapore dollars a year by 2020, up from four billion in 2011. Healthcare spending, he said, will reach eight billion Singapore dollars in 2015 – a year earlier than what had initially been projected.

Whether for palliative care, injury rehabilitation, or even just monitoring services, technology is increasingly being touted as a solution for the problem. With more seniors opting to age in place, the Internet of Things holds much promise especially as many of them are used to using some form technology.

Joseph Coughlin, Director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology AgeLab, wrote in a blog post what we can expect:

“Everyday devices, even your clothing, will have sensors and computer chips enabling them to be ‘smart’ and communicate. Your refrigerator will contact your smartphone, watch, or car to remind you that you are out of milk. Home lighting will detect that you are no longer in a room or even the house and shut off. While most developers of Internet of Things are focused on consumer convenience and saving money, these same technologies will make it easier and safer to live in your home through retirement. Sensors under the carpet detect that your walk has changed from a stride to a shuffle and notifies your physician that a fall is highly probable. Your stove alerts that it has been left on. A smart pill bottle buzzes your ever smarter watch reminding you to take your medications. Someday, you will have chips implanted under your skin transforming Internet of Things – and you – into the Internet of Everything.”

Gavin Tay, Research Director at Gartner, says that while aging populations in Asia are indeed a nagging challenge, it is the era of smart machines that is upon us. “Many forms of smart machines are emerging,” Tay said. “Their use cases span consumer, enterprise, public sector, and vertical industry markets.”

Tay said that although artificial intelligence (AI) suffered problems in its earliest stages, developers are now revisiting many Al elements and combining them with natural language processing, analytics, search and graphing techniques to create new breeds of smart machines. “These machines surprise us with the appearance of humanlike intelligence. An example of this leads us to the world’s first robot hotel in Japan (a country with a rapidly aging population) which newly opened its doors recently. The work typically done in a hotel by massively staffed humans has been replaced with robots,” he added.

Riding the Silver Wave

All of this means that businesses in the region are increasingly developing solutions towards this area.

In Japan for example, Japan based IT services giant Fujitsu launched a research initiative to provide monitoring services and assisted independent living for senior citizens and patients who live in smart houses in June 2013.

According Wong Heng Chew, Country President for Fujitsu Singapore, Fujitsu’s Technology and Service Vision focuses on Human Centric Innovation by empowering people with the right kind of technologies and infrastructures to help them grow and digitalize their businesses.

“This vision guides everything we do at Fujitsu, as we believe that the most important thing is helping organizations use the potential of digital technologies to make their lives and the world a better place to live and work,” he added.

Due to its super aging population and rapidly increasing healthcare costs, the Kyoto Prefectural Government recognized the need to find a solution that would address these issues by providing its elderly residents with cost effective and comprehensive medical support services.

Fujitsu used its CRMate cloud service to develop the Secure Home Convalescence Hospital Registration System. This is the first system in Japan that provides an end to end support service to enable elderly residents to remain in their local communities for as long as possible.

Working with several Irish research institutions over the course of a year, Fujitsu has been using sensors to monitor patients’ daily lives.

By gathering data on anything from their physical location to moods and joint movements, doctors have been able to monitor and provide diagnostic support to improve their daily lives.

As CRMate is a cloud based application, there is no need to purchase hardware or software. Furthermore, Kyoto Prefectural staffs were very impressed by the self customization function that allows users to make simple screen layout changes and to add screens as required.

“I had a strong conviction that this system should not be simply created, installed, and then left unchanged. The system needed to evolve in line with changing trends and requirements. That is why we considered the system’s flexibility to be such an enormous advantage,” said Hiroshi Yamaguchi, Director, Health and Welfare Department, Kyoto Prefecture.

Wong agreed saying that the ability to replace capital expenditure with a predictable fee allows for better economies of scale, makes cloud adoption a logical decision. He added that hosting applications in the cloud also allows companies to scale up or reduce usage in line with market conditions.

Researching Ageless Aging

The focus researchers from Nanyang Technological University (NTU)’s Research Centre of Excellence in Active Living for the Elderly Research Center (LILY) is to develop interactive digital media (IDM) services and research capabilities for technology enabled ageless aging to address the global aging challenges.

The Joint NTU-University of British Columbia (UBC) Research Centre of Excellence in Active Living for the Elderly (LILY) is a university level center jointly established by NTU and UBC, Canada as well as partners Shandong Commercial (Lushang) Group Co. Ltd., and the Pacific Parkinson’s Research Center.

Over sixty five researchers from a variety of disciplines are developing cutting edge technologies that effectively address the physical, social, emotional, and cognitive issues related to aging. The goal is to enable the elderly to enjoy a healthy, happy, dignified, and active independent life, while ensuring long term sustainability.

One solution that was highlighted in news reports are a number of games which not only train the mind but incorporate certain tests used to detect conditions such as Parkinson’s and dementia.

The solution is currently undergoing testing at Tan Tock Seng Hospital’s geriatric center, several community centers, and a Parkinson’s disease center in Canada. Dr. Frank Guan, the center’s manager, said a lot of technology targeted at the elderly focuses on how to care for them after they get sick.

“But if we can look earlier and look at preventive technology, then we can detect the signs and help to prevent some of these illnesses from happening or, at least, slow down their progression gradually,” he added.

Going the Entrepreneurial Route

ACCESS Health International and NUS Enterprise recently launched the Modern Aging program that rolled out in August in Singapore. Combining innovators and university technologies with a focused approach, the initiative offers Singapore the chance to make a global impact on the aging population.

The four month program will bring together students, researchers, and health professionals from across disciplines to create businesses for aging and also inspire young entrepreneurs. Some 1,500 entrepreneurs, investors, researchers, policymakers, and industry members are expected to attend this event.

One entrepreneur mentioned at the program’s launch was Serene Tan who came up with the idea to create a walking frame that is easier for elderly people to use some four years ago. This had wheels to glide it forward, with an autobrake system for safety. After excelling in business workshops and competitions, as well as receiving key grants, she successfully developed, manufactured and marketed GlydeSafe. Some 150 units have been sold to customers in Singapore. Tan’s next challenge is to ramp up product sales by launching GlydeSafe internationally and explore a pipeline of products for the aging community.

Partnering Up for Added Advantages

The Internet of Things (IoT), cloud computing, Fujitsu, and Panasonic are coming together for a one year trial in the homes of seniors involving cloud connected air conditioners and motion sensors. The companies hope to jointly develop a new monitoring service that integrates their respective technologies to reduce the workload on caregivers.

The wall mounted air conditioners, which are already on the market, can gather temperature and humidity information and upload it to the Panasonic cloud. Mounted alongside them, the Fujitsu Laboratories sensor uses microwave radar to detect body movements within a range of three meters.

The data is uploaded to the Fujitsu cloud. Analysis in the cloud can determine if the resident is in or out of the room and either awake or asleep. The results are then sent to the Panasonic cloud, which can send notifications to onsite caregivers, who can also adjust the air conditioner settings. The system could help prevent heatstroke and alert nurses to poor quality sleep.

During the announcement, it was said that by bringing together the advanced technologies from these two companies will make it possible to manage living spaces and monitor the conditions of occupants, including occupants who do not rely on the support of caregiver rounds.

Security and Architecture

But all of the data and information entered and generated needs to be secured with access only granted to those who need it like medical professionals.

Malicious attacks and hacks have made the news with reports of thousands of people suffering the loss of personal data or credit card information. And with increased communication between devices in the age of IoT, security and privacy are even more important.

Knowing where data will reside is essential as the location has a significant impact on its privacy and confidentiality, as well as the legal obligations of those who process and store the data, given the varying regulatory frameworks in place in different legal jurisdictions.

Further, to support services and solutions, a robust, scalable and always available IT infrastructure backbone needs to be in place. To get around the need for upfront infrastructure costs, many eldercare solutions providers have turned to the cloud for help.

Tay says that organizations will have to design solutions for consumption from multiple experience brokers, enabling users to interact with technology through conversations with smart machines. “You can no longer have one to one silos with web front ends tightly coupled to back end systems,” he said.

The adoption of IoT and the types of architectures used vary by industry. The dropping costs of technology, large number of vendors and ease of experimentation push implementation forward. Yet, Tays says security concerns and the lack of standards and business models still limit IoT adoption.

Gartner predicts, by 2018, at least one smart machine maker will have settled a liability suit because its product made a negligent or criminal decision. Smart machines learn and develop behaviors based on interactions with people, thus travel beyond their original programming. “Users will use smart machines in ways developers didn’t intend, so the probability of unintended consequences is high,” Tay said. “Organizations will have to work with their legal counsel to draft guidelines for ethical behavior for smart machine deployments in advance of external legislation.”