Less Recovery and Idleness, But More Commitment and Output to Society
Population Europe: Mrs. Weiss, all of Europe is being confronted with demographic change. The general life expectancy is rising. In your opinion, are these developments a risk or a window of opportunity?
Christine Weiss: One has to stop painting too black a picture. Shrinking, ageing, empty pension funds – all of that sounds horrifying but it is the dawn of a new era. Society is changing and we need to see how we can generate new possibilities. As a consequence of the increase in the elderly population, our value system will have to be altered and we as a society will have to develop further. This offers a lot of opportunities and we should make a virtue of necessity. For example, the technological approach offers many possibilities: Here, a whole new market is developing. By creating new products and services, one can get a cutting-edge position and in the long run be able to provide goods to other markets.
PE: Is it necessary to increase the working lifetime?
CW: For me this is not only an economic issue, but also a social one. There are many individual needs and therefore the system has to be correspondingly flexible. When it is necessary to work longer, are there enough jobs available? A longer working lifetime is always associated with the question of feasibility. Foundations have to be laid to make it easier for the elderly at the workplace. For example, sensory organs can be supported through technology. Also, age-based knowledge management is possible. We have to think about new working time models. There will be people who have to work longer because their pensions are insufficient. At the same time, there are people who simply have the motivation to work longer than required. There are also elderly who return to their jobs. If you love your job, you don’t want to be forced to quit.
PE: What has to change in society to use those changes as an asset?
CW: The systems are complex and therefore it is hard to make accurate predictions. It is important to be more responsive to individual solutions. Individuals have to try to define their destinies themselves. At the same time, there must be the right to be weak and to be a recipient of benefits. What is important too is intergenerational solidarity. The younger generation has to show commitment. This is also true for the older generation. “The elderly helping the elderly” is an example of a conceivable model. Politically, a lot could be done, but the rest must happen in society. Mutual understanding (between the young and the elderly) is important. Old people will have to take on more initiative. We live longer so we should be there for the community longer too. Latest statistics show that it is realistic to have another thirty years after retirement. This new third phase of life, which most spend in good health, will be arranged differently. Less recovery and idleness, but more commitment and output to society. The third phase of life is a whole new field of research.
PE: What is important in order to stay fit for a long time?
CW: There are countless examples, where people stay mentally active through their creative power. But not everyone wants that but that is again a question of personal values and of course possibilities. Old age depression, dementia and Alzheimer’s are big topics and there are various solutions. Quite a few elderly are overwhelmed with this last period of life. Suddenly you don’t have a challenge anymore and are partially restricted. A sensible organisation of the last phase of life has to be learned. There must be guidelines and role models, as well as best practices, on how to stay psychologically fit. We occupy ourselves with factors on ageing healthily and happily. In the same way we had to learn certain hygiene standards in former times, we will now have to learn to practise psychological precautions, to keep ourselves mentally fit and the third phase of life happy and active.
PE: How far developed are technical supports for the elderly? Is a robotics world for seniors realistic?
CW: Many low-threshold solutions already exist. Age-appropriate assistance systems for a healthy and independent life (AAL) are one of them. As for the robotic solutions, that is still in the future, but there are already some inceptions. For example, there are robots that remind old people which medication they need to take. The whole environment will be a continuous, permanent input system, which can support you in every situation. There are also possibilities to use robotic systems to support the elderly, for example make it easier to walk and to deal with daily tasks. The difference between vision and reality is still quite large but technical systems are becoming increasingly accessible and easily operable. What is still lacking is social acceptance. The image of technological helping systems has to change. Here is the question of the state, where in Germany for example, hardly anyone uses in-house emergency calls, whereas in Great Britain you have the right to get one at a certain age. Thus, about 50% of the elderly have such a system. With all the possibilities to be independent at old age, we also have to consider the flip side. Many old people don’t want to be alone at home, but would rather be a part of society.
PE: What about new communications technology for the elderly?
CW: Similar. With regards to the Internet for the elderly, there are many approaches, but generally it is still a marginal issue. There are social networks, but old people use them less than young people do. For many old people, it is also frustrating when they are unable to cope with the new technology. Women tend to be more honest with regards to that than men. With time, technology will be accessible for more and more people, even if they don’t have that affinity. This could be a point where the young can help the old. New communication models could be useful in many ways, for instance when it comes to supply issues. For example, there is often a lack of communication between patients, doctors and the family. There are now programmes that facilitate services and care when one comes to the crossroads. It will become apparent in the near future how this will develop.
Christine Weiss is an experienced engineer. At VDI/VDE-IT she is deputy head of the unit “Demographic Change”. VDI/VDE-IT is a leading service provider in questions concerning the entire field of innovation and technology. They are in charge of several national and European interdisciplinary projects concerned with the development of age-appropriate assistance on the basis of modern microsystems and communications technology.
Interview: Isabel Robles Salgado / Population Europe