The world is aging. Baby boomers are now seniors. As countries develop, their people age. Since 1970, the part of elderly in the population has never ceased to increase, even dramatically for some countries such as Japan, Germany or South Korea. In fact, Japan is home to the world’s most rapid-aging population with more than 26% of its population being 65 years old or over. And with a weaker and weaker birth rate, the equation is easy: Japan is shifting towards a silver society at lightning speed, and so does Korea.
Towards a world aging alone
Not only their number increase by the day, more and more elderly live also alone according to the UN. Why? Mainly because a majority of elderly people (nearly 90% in the US according to the American Association of Retired Persons) wish to live independently, in their own home, as long as possible. The evolution of the family structure (more divorces or single parent families mechanically means more people living alone when they age) and the increased life expectancy which causes more and more people to outlive their spouse also mechanically result in more old people living alone. The traditional pattern in which three generations live under a same roof or children take care of their parents is gradually becoming a thing of the past.
More and more elderly live alone and die alone as well.
In Japan and Korea, the social isolation of elderly people living alone is such that their bodies are discovered days and sometimes months or years after their deaths. This phenomenon, called the ‘lonely deaths’, has been increasing the past decade to the point it got its own name (“kodokushi” in Japanese, “godoksa” in Korean) as well as its own industry: the lonely-death cleaning service industry. And the number of lonely deaths is skyrocketing. In Korea, the number of these deaths rose by 77.8% in just 5 years (2011–2016) according to the Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare and in Japan, estimates by the NLI Research Institute, evaluate the number of lonely deaths to 30,000 each year. But this phenomenon, largely underestimated and undocumented, is not limited to these two countries. From the US to Europe and Japan, lonely deaths always found its origin in:
- Social isolation — It may result from several situations: some people have avoided stressful situations resulting from social relationships such as family gathering; some people favor their career over family resulting in distant family relationships; some elderly have simply outlived their relatives and friends, and failed to meet new people at an old age.
- Retirement — Elderly people who have withdrawn for the economic life face social isolation and sometimes identity crisis, especially when, in societies, the job is the pillar of social life and status. Retiring from a job then equals to retiring from social life.
- Fear of disturbing and/or feeling of shame or “Gaman”, a trait existing among the Japanese population making them stay silent while enduring difficult situations and suffering, can prevent the elderly from seeking help from their family, neighbors or government authorities. The increased employment rate of women, who are the traditional caregiver of the elderly, can come accentuate this phenomenon: having to pay attention daily to both their children and career, they have less to no time to take care of their old parents or relatives.
- Failure to adapt to sudden and severe weather change — Europe learned this lesson the hard way in August 2003. At that time, a record heatwave that hit European countries caused the death of at least 35,000 people. France alone suffered 14,802 deaths in less than a month, 70% being elderly people over 75 years old and living alone at home.
- Mental health issues — mental diseases, mental distress, depression prevent the elderly from taking care of themselves well.
Extra care needed for the elderly living alone
As with aging comes the decrease of mobility, cognitive and sensory capacities as well as the weakening of the body which is more seriously impacted by the surrounding environment, living alone can become gradually unsafe for some elderly people. They are less and less able to ensure their well-being on a daily basis.
So, what needs to be checked when elderly people live alone?
- Mental health — Loneliness, forgetfulness (to eat medicine, pay bills or go to appointments), dementia, depression…
- Physical health — eyesight, mobility, well-being…
- Social isolation — whether the person is integrated into a community or regularly checked on by his/her relatives or a caregiver
- Nutrition — whether the person takes his/her meal regularly…
- Environment — Elders are more impacted by their surrounding environment such as sudden and severe temperature changes
These points need to be tracked as often as possible, otherwise, the life of the elderly could be put into danger like during the 2003 European heatwave crisis. Therefore, elderly people should be given solutions to help them ensure their well-being on a daily basis. Families as well should be presented with useful tools to assist and monitor their senior members remotely as much as they could, without invading their privacy too much. And this is when Smart Technology, and especially, smart sensors, can show off all their potential.
Technologies helping the elderly
Instead of having a government displayed warning spots on TV, what if alerts and advice could be provided when needed and in real-time? In short, a personalized monitoring of one’s health, status and environment to be given to the elderly and/or to the caregiver, be it a family member, neighbor or the local government staff.
This is the direction taken by the South Korean government to tackle the issue of living-alone seniors, especially the ones living in rural and remote areas. It has partnered with South Korean tech companies to create innovative solutions, to protect the health and safety of the elderly.
KT Smart Sensors
KT, a South Korean IT group, has developed a range of smart sensors that are helping local government officials monitoring the status of the elderly in remote and rural areas since October 2017:
- Movement detection sensor — to inform whether the senior is active. If there is no movement detected over a period of time, the staff can call the elderly and quickly take emergency measures if necessary.
- Electric power consumption sensor — Installed at the elderly home, the electric power consumption data is sent to the local government office. In case of discrepancy compared to the usual usage, an official takes action.
- Smart IoT Sensor with integrated LED to ensure safety and prevent loneliness.
MicroBot Sense by Naran
Our company, Naran, was founded with the aim of making all people’s lives better through smart and innovative technology. We received subsidies from the Korean Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy to develop smart solutions for the elderly. This is how MicroBot Sense was born. MicroBot Sense is a smart sensor that measures various atmospheric variables and detects movements:
- Temperature, humidity, air pressure, luminosity, noise and CO2 sensors
- Motion sensor. Placed on the front door, it can be used to track when the senior comes in and out of his home. Placed on the fridge door, the caregiver can check whether he has taken his meal or not. This is particularly useful if the senior is suffering from Alzheimer or dementia.
Installed at home, it helps ensure the well-being and safety of the senior on a daily basis in several possible ways without sacrificing privacy too much:
- Notifications — The senior receives notifications on her smartphone alerting on the current situation of his environment and providing advice according to it. For instance, raise the humidity if it is too low. And the more Sense is used the more accurate the advice gets. This way, the elderly are assisted while keeping his independence.
- Data sharing — Users can decide to share their surrounding environment’s data with other people. It is particularly useful for family members to check on their elderly relatives.
- Remote monitoring — MicroBot Sense can all be installed in the elderly’s home and managed remotely by a family member or caregiver. The latter can set up specific notifications such as “Alert me When there’s no movement in my parents’ house for one day” so that he makes to call the senior and take the necessary emergency actions.
Just like shown in this Korean example, Smart Technology represents a great opportunity to improve the life of the elderly, mitigate the physical and cognitive impairments coming with aging, and ensure their safety while observing their wish for independence. The elder care tech industry, by developing dedicated smart solutions, could help the elderly live alone in their own home as long as possible. Smarts sensors definitively have a big part to play when it comes to empowering both seniors and caregivers.