The fourth season of Channel NewsAsia’s (CNA) ‘Perspectives’ was recently conducted in Singapore by the Newcastle University, UK. The CNA flagship discussion programme featured weekly panel sessions focusing on various global issues including energy, economics, ageing and education.
I spoke to Professor Louise Robinson who is the Director and Professor of Primary Care and Ageing at the Institutes of Ageing and Health/Health and Society, Newcastle University. Her research programme is centred on Primary Care and Ageing, with a special interest in the care of people with dementia in primary care from diagnosis through to death. She was in town, to take part in the panel discussion “Caring for Ageing Asia” at the Newcastle University Medicine Malaysia Auditorium at Johor Bahru, Malaysia.
Hello Dr. Robinson, could you tell us more about your recent talk in the panel discussion, “Caring for Ageing Asia”?
My talk was about healthcare in general. About how we need to think about not only now, but of the future too, in terms of caring for older people. Since we are living longer, we need to ensure that the next generation of elderly people are living healthier and can remain independent for longer. So, I was talking about the present situation and the future challenges.
How does the statistics of ageing compare in UK and Singapore?
Life expectancy is now nearly 80 for men and 82 for women in UK. In fact, it is increasing 2 years for every decade while it is increasing 3years for every decade in singapore. In that sense, Singapore is ageing faster than we are. Ageing is a challenge for everybody even in the western world, just to varying degrees.
What do you have to say about the startups that are currently working on assistive technologies for the elderly?
Technology has a huge potential to make devices that assist the elderly. It is not just about the technology but it’s about the systems you need to put in place, to enable the technology to be most efficient and sustainable. You may have a gadget that helps, but you need that to be connected up with the caretakers/family and wider emergency services and everyone needs to know how to respond.
I think the technology is often there, lot of devices being produced, but they need to be integrated to the community healthcare systems, else they are not going to be sustainable. In the west, that is the problem. The devices seem to be there, but the health and social care are not really connected up, except in some parts.
The current generation has grown up in a technology savvy environment whereas for us, we would hope that rather than creating new technology (which is what a lot of companies are doing), they would rather adapt the existing technology and make them grow old with us. Thats what i would hope, so i don’t have to learn anything new and i think thats the trick for the future.
What do you think they should remember when they are making a device/app for the aged?
I think the most important thing is they need to co-design keeping the users in mind. I have no idea what an 80 year old would/would not use. We did some research in NewCastle where we had people of dementia who said they would actually be positive of using technology if it allowed them to be independent and they still felt like they were being watched over by a big brother. But that technology must not disable them or set them apart from the people, it should rather be integrated.
If it cannot be integrated with existing systems, then it isn’t going to be much useful. On a family level its ok if you have your son or daughter buying a technology to keep in contact, but if health and social care really wants to use technology to make the care of aged more efficient, then it has to be linked with health and care systems. We also need doctors and care workers to be positive about it.
What are your research areas?
My research mainly focuses on health of older people but what I’m really interested is in dementia. It must be remembered that dementia is actually a physical illness which occurs when brain cells die off, but there is a lot of misconception about this among people. Age is the biggest risk factor for dementia. So by aging, we are naturally putting ourselves at greater risk of dementia. There’s no cure but research says that you can delay the onset of dementia by exercise, eating well, keeping your weight down, by keeping your mind active.
We have a study in UK called the Cognitive function and aging study which is a big national study involving 18,000 people. We followed them up over a long period of time and saw how many got dementia and the number of people in 2011 that got dementia were around 20% less than we thought would get in 1990s. In that time period, the UK spent a lot more time on prevention strategies and public health strategies and that’s why I think there has been a decrease.
Recently, Newcastle University won government funding for a National Center to be built in the next three years, around developing products and innovative projects for elder people called the National Center for Aging Science Innovation.
You also work a lot on assistive technologies. Could you tell us more about it.
My work involves the concept of co-design and getting old people involved with companies. For example, our first study was with people with dementia and they were very positive about using technology, but they didn’t want to be stigmatised. They preferred that things were integrated into things they normally use like watches or keys. Things like putting a GPS in the sole of a shoe to see if people get lost made them very happy and we have seen a lot of our alarms being turned into watches and jewellery. The design is crucial because the technology is there but its about putting it into a form which is practical and usable.
You were asked an interesting question, during the panel. Given a choice, who would you invest more..would you invest in the young who will be elderly tommorrow or would you invest in elderly?
Yeah, and i think the answer is pretty clear. If you are a doctor, the Hippocrates oath says you must do your best for all patients, so at the end of the day he/she would do what is essential for all patients.
As governments, you have to ensure that sufficient funding goes into both, so that neither of the groups feel neglected. Its not a question of whom do you favour, but its more about providing access for all as equally as possible.
How do we approach ageing as an issue?
The aim is to age gracefully and with dignity.
Its about planning, prevention and thinking of challenges not only today but of tomorrow.
Bring key agencies around the table and start making efficient systems.
In many places, the topic of ageing is rather taboo, people don’t want to talk about ageing because if you talk about ageing then you have to talk about death and you don’t want to talk about it. The mindset has to change.
Ultimately, Who’s responsibility is it- the government, the private sectors or is it NGOs? Its everyone’s responsibility. Its a collective collaboration, but it starts with the individual. With You.