Retirement Income Alliance

Technology and Retirement

by Malcolm Small 30th May 2017

Our image of old age is often one of declining capability. It is inexorably true that cognitive ability declines in later life, starting to go downhill around age 55 in most people, declining steadily from there. The exceptions to this rule are those suffering from dementia, which will affect around 1 in 3 of the current population before they die. This figure is quite frightening to people, and especially politicians given the enormous and probably unsustainable sums involved in providing care for this large group.

However, I recently had an interesting lunch with an old contact who is active in policy circles around the ageing agenda. Much to my surprise, he told me he was heavily engaged with a UK based design group looking at how driverless car technology could be designed with the needs of older people “baked in” from outset. We no doubt have all experienced those pangs of disquiet when being driven in the car of a much loved, but elderly, relative, when we come to the realisation that their skills and reaction times have deteriorated to the point that they should, really, not be driving any more. But we know, don’t we, that if we are the one to raise the “red flag” we will be depriving them of mobility, freedom and self-esteem at a time when these are fragile at best? I think many of us have been there. Certainly, when my 89 year old father, having taken the wrong slip road off a roundabout, actually reversed back to the roundabout and mounted the grass verge in the process, I should probably have acted. But, like most of us………….

Driverless cars could hold out great promise here, as elderly people could have transport on demand without actually having to do any of the driving themselves. Satellite navigation technology will be key to the technology here, which implies a need to key in postcodes with shaky hands and fingers. Voice activation has come on by miles in recent years and can be used to overcome that particular problem. Voice recognition technology can be used to hire and unlock the car. The same technology will soon be used extensively in banking, so older people can use a personal digital assistant to make the payment for it. Using “voice” as opposed to key pads could be a revolutionary advance in helping people manage their day to day affairs around the home, too, commanding appliances to switch off automatically last thing at night, reducing energy costs and risks, for example. The old stereotype of technology being baffling to older people is changing fast and could evaporate entirely as voice commanded systems evolve.

Elsewhere, we are seeing the emergence of assisted mobility technologies which can help older people walk again and the rapid developments in robotics and artificial intelligence hold out the prospect of home assistance in the tasks of daily living for older people, social care by machine. A driverless car could transport the same person to a social centre – or to hospital, obviating the need for much routine ambulance work.

The ways in which new technology could help older people, and reduce costs to the state and the individual in the process, seem to me to be limited only by the imagination and could ride to the rescue of an elderly care problem which in some ways seemed almost beyond resolution going forward. From shopping delivered to your home, happening now, to robotic stimulus and interaction from a dementia “bot”, the possibilities are endless. The key to all this, it seems to me, is the removal of any need for the older person to operate a key pad.

We have much to be grateful for in the emergence of voice recognition and command.

Malcolm's views are his own and do not constitute advice.