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With the demographic ageing of Australia’s population, a suite of emerging innovative technologies offers the prospect of enhanced security, safety, diagnosis, treatment and physical assistance to improve the quality of life for elderly people, to help them remain at home, and to provide financial savings in aged care and medical treatment.

There is already a substantial investment in research and development capacity in this area in Australia but more needs to be done to maintain, strengthen and coordinate this activity and to ensure that public and private aged care authorities and organisations can effectively utilise the outcomes. The Australian Government has a critical role to play by promoting a National Research and Development Agenda on Technology and Ageing to complement the National Strategy on Ageing and the recently announced National Enabling Technologies Strategy.

In general, people are living longer and birth rates are falling. The balance of the population between older and younger people is undergoing a dramatic change. The reshaping of the age distribution will affect all sectors of society and the nation needs to act now to deal with potential issues. This changing demographic pattern is occurring in all developed countries and an increasing number of developed countries. It is happening considerably faster in Europe and many Asian countries than here because of Australia’s continued high immigration rate.

Population ageing presents a major economic challenge because a smaller proportion of people of working age will have to support the cohort of people who are retired. In Australia the demographic support ratio, that is, the number of people of working age (20 to 64) relative to older people (65+), will fall from the present ratio of 5:1 down to 2.7:1 by 2050. This means that productivity must be increased to maintain economic growth and that there will be a shortage of healthcare professionals and carers to cope with the increased number of frail elderly.

Because the elderly are more frequent users of health services and because medical researchers are developing new drugs and procedures linked to age, the Australian Government’s 2010 Intergenerational Report suggests that health spending on those aged over 65 is likely to increase sevenfold. There will be a need for new models of health care and training to deal with this situation. Technology can offer possible solutions to issues of safety and security, diagnosis and treatment, while assistive technologies offer the potential to reduce costs.

Ageing-in-place supported by smart technologies offers the potential for substantial savings in residential aged care and in reduced admissions to hospitals, by providing early alerts to changing health patterns and by minimising falls and other accidents in the home. Many of these technologies for elderly-friendly housing depend on information and communication technologies to address social communications, personal health monitoring, telehealth, shopping and education. While these can be installed in existing homes, future dwellings will need to be custom designed to incorporate such systems and to cater for the lifelong needs of people. There are opportunities for business and industry to capitalise on the projected expanded markets, both in Australia and overseas, offered by demographic change.

Because of the complexities of the challenges that need to be addressed in applying technology to the aged, there is a need to bring together a wide range of technologies to focus on solutions. The Australian Government has recognised the value of this approach in the recently announced National Enabling Technologies Strategy. The concept of enabling technologies brings into convergence several technologies such as nanotechnologies, information and communication technologies, biotechnology and cognitive science to focus on areas of social, economic and technical importance. In Europe their application to ageing is termed ‘gerontechnology’, linking medical aspects of ageing (gerontology) with smart technologies to assist in daily living. This is a well-established concept overseas that needs to be promoted in Australia as a means to coordinate research and development activity in this area.

The present study has reviewed much of the overseas activity in gerontechnology, particularly in Europe where there are well organised and well funded national and multi-national programmes. An EU/ Australia workshop in Paris in October 2009 provided an up-to-date view of European activity. Based on these inputs and extensive discussions in Australia in three workshops organised by the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE), together with numerous visits to researchers and interested groups, several technological opportunities for Australia have been identified within a timeframe of 15 to 20 years. Selected technologies are in three categories:

  • security and safety – elderly-friendly homes, prevention of falls, communication and social interaction;
  • diagnosis and treatment – telehealth, coping with degenerative diseases, nanomedicine; and
  • assistive technologies – biorobotics, brain/machine interaction, mobility systems.

To realise the potential of smart technology in these categories in Australia, national coordination is essential to make optimum use of the available resources, while sustained R&D support is needed. Universities need to bring together a range of skills in Centres of Excellence in Gerontechnology to provide research and training in the application of smart technologies for healthy longevity. Healthcare authorities, the insurance industry and the public need to be made aware of the potential of smart technologies to assist in providing healthy, secure and happy futures for the aged population. Further, Australian business and industry need to be alerted to opportunities for commercialisation of outputs from gerontechnology R&D. Such an approach is in accord with the objectives of the National Enabling Technologies Strategy.

Finally, there are important social and ethical issues raised by the application of technologies to aged people. They should be involved more deeply in defining their needs to ensure optimum solutions. Outcomes should be ‘demand-driven’ and not a result of ‘technology-push‘. With closer linkages via home communication systems there are increased opportunities for loss of privacy, fraud, misuse of personal information etc, particularly with the frail aged. The issue of privacy is a major one arising from the use of unseen monitoring systems which report to a central base. These issues must be addressed in the development and application of enabling technologies for the ageing.

Related identifier: ISBN 978 1 921388 11 8

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