BBC World News - Horizons

An Insight into the Future of Global Business

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Adapting to an ageing population

A demographic revolution like nothing we’ve seen before is happening right in front of our eyes. Within the next five years there will be more adults aged over 65 than there will be children aged under five, and that is the first time that’s happened in the history of mankind.

It’s heartening to know that the crick in my neck, the ache in my knees and the wobble round my middle are merely a sign of how much part of the latest fashion I have become. I am nowhere near 65 but it is comforting to know that the peak of my trendiness is still ahead of me.

The big question is whether our technology and society are adapting quickly enough to cope with those changes.

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) I met Joseph Coughlin, the founder of the AgeLab, which is not just showing us how to walk in another man’s shoes, but what it’s like to walk with a Zimmer frame as well..

Coughlin talks about the massive change that is about to happen: “We have taught business for 50-60 years to focus on the youth. The youth just got old. So business has always focused on the young, when the money, the numbers, and the demand is now on the old.”

The AgeLab has designed Agnes, the Age Gain Now Empathy System. It simulates the changes that occur naturally as we age. Put on this suit and you feel tired, there’s reduced flexibility in joints and muscles, and difficulty with vision and balance.

My own father, who is in his 80s, would send me to my room were I to suggest that all older people suffer these problems, as he flies around the world, still works and is almost as mobile as I am.

But it is nevertheless true that some older people do suffer terribly from these sorts of physical constraints.

Coughlin puts me in Agnes and sends me out on the streets of Boston to shop. Immediately I find it difficult getting out of cars, shopping or indeed just walking up stairs.

Told to find cat litter in the supermarket, I can’t reach the top shelf and mistake washing up powder for the litter. The supermarket and the products just weren’t designed for someone who can’t see well or can’t put their arm above their head easily.

That’s the point. If more of us are going to have these restrictions, more designers should experience them before putting pen to the design board.

The ageing society could be one of the defining characteristics of the next century. It will bring many problems. As we’ve seen there are technological fixes for some of those but fancy gimmicks in themselves won’t be the full answer.

Working in tandem with technology there must also be huge social change. We don’t just want to live longer, we want to live more fulfilling lives as well, and there, as they say, lies the rub.

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