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Human and ethical face of technology and robotisation can help elderly people stay active and young

CCMI hearing discussed "Economic, technological and social changes in advanced health services for elderly people"

"What do you want to become one day?" – "Old!"

We all like this quotation published in different cartoons, though it is not complete: We not only want to get old but we also want to stay independent as long as possible.

Given the demographic development of the upcoming decades, the issue of decent ageing is already and will increasingly be a burning issue. The Consultative Commission on Industrial Change (CCMI) at the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) is therefore currently drafting an opinion on "Economic, technological and social changes in advanced health services for elderly people". Rapporteurs Marian Krzaklewski and Jean-Pierre Haber feel that "for too long we have failed to anticipate the needs of our elderly people. Given the growing life expectancy of Europeans, this ethical and human question needs answers now."  In their opinion – to be adopted in May - the rapporteurs not only want to look at the challenges, but also at the opportunities for Europe's industry.

In order to get input from experts from different EU countries, the CCMI organised a hearing which revealed that hi-tech can play a decisive role in enabling our elder generations to live a longer autonomous life:

Elderly people prefer to stay in their homes

Though residential care homes were created with the intention to help, they were not the preferred places where elderly people wanted to live, said first speaker Régis Aubry, medical doctor and professor, member of the Consultative National Committee of Ethics  (CCNE) in France. It was the lack of support in their own dwellings that forced elderly people to move into these homes. This often results – like in France – in a high depression and suicide rate among older people, because they feel useless and lose their dignity. It was an ethical challenge for our society to do more to allow elderly men and women to stay in their homes.

He called for better education of care takers in order to enhance their competencies and saw the need for interdisciplinary ethical research that looks at architecture, health, psychology, sociology etc.

According to Philippe Defeyt, economist and president of the Institute of sustainable development in Belgium research on inequality of life expectancy was also necessary – e.g. what was the role of poverty, social insecurity or social exclusion in this regard?

"The needs are the same at every age", he stated. To meet these needs, however, the means were changing. In order to have an independent life, elderly people usually needed increased means and therefore inequality became even more visible when people age. The major question was whether investment and services should be subsidised for all and kept at a rather low level or if subsidies should be dependent on the level of income?

Prevention and high technology are key for active ageing  

To see ageing as a lifecycle, which does not only include care but also prevention is Marina Monaco's approach, a Social Protection Advisor at European Trade Union Confederation ETUC/CES. Prevention was key and prevention means investment, for instance in better jobs, allowing longer working careers with a retirement in good health.

Furthermore, active ageing needs to be seen also in the context of new technologies and digitalisation. "We need to broaden the view on digitalisation by also seeing the opportunities new technologies bring for the improvement of life quality and work environment", Ms Monaco concluded.

Piotr Bak, Research Commercialization Manager, Institute of Medical Technology and Equipment of Zabrze-Poland (ITAM) adopted the same line by saying: "If we are to promote active ageing and active life, we need to remove obstacles so that the elderly can benefit from innovations". 

It was important to develop new devices in the medical sector for elderly people. People needed to get used to new technology so that elderly people can take ownership of it and can use it in their daily lives.

The undervaluation of care staff and care workers was highlighted in the discussion by Mark Bergfeld, UNI Europe Representative, Employment Relations, stressing that the private care sector was the lowest paid among our economies, had the highest labour turnover rates ranging from 60% to 80%, and employees with the highest number of sick days in the EU economy.

Productivity therefore could only be enhanced by a high level of automation. New technologies also presented a chance for upskilling; they provided new challenges but also employment opportunities in the ICT sector particularly for younger people.

Given that the majority of care workers currently are over 50 years of age, robots and technology in general would need to play a greater role, for instance to help lift care users.

A possible way forward – an example from Poland

Agnieska Ciesla, Engineer, Professor at the Warsaw University of Technology presented the Polish project "At home despite age", which consists of apartments adapted to allow independent active ageing. With a surface area of52 square meters, these apartments are suitable for one to two people and are wheelchair accessible. Apart from the architectural and ergonomic considerations, technical support was also offered, explained Ms Ciesla. For example, a screen that allowed the occupants to see the visitor knocking on the door or a bracelet with an emergency button allowing them to call for prompt assistance if necessary.

Also the location of the building was important, located in the developed part of the town so that people had access to public transport. Moreover, the building was not entirely occupied by elderly people and the same applied for the neighbourhood, so that seniors could take part in social activities and intergenerational exchange could happen.