The world is battling a boom in ageing and a squeeze on care. By 2050, more than a fifth of the world’s population will be over 60, amounting to more than 2bn people. In turn, a fifth of those are expected to be over 80 - some 390m people, more than three times the present number.
Many are likely to have health problems and to need help in leading dignified day-to-day lives. Experts say there is a shortage of carers to do the job, because of low wages, high staff turnover and families having fewer children. Professional carers will be in ever greater demand.
“Most countries are sitting on a ticking time bomb because the cost of social care is only going to get greater,” says Anurag Gupta, a healthcare analyst at Gartner, a technology research group.
Companies in the tech sector have spied an opportunity. They are beginning to offer products that could help fill the gap ranging from wearable devices for patients to peer-to-peer marketplaces for carers and autonomous robots.
Remote monitoring via wearable devices has great potential, as being able to analyse someone’s health and behaviour from afar reduces the need for a carer’s constant presence. The idea is to use the data-crunching and connecting capabilities of digital technology to provide services that are more personalised for the receiver and less taxing for the worker.
Meanwhile, CareSpotter.com, a start-up based in Orlando, Florida, lets people search online for freelance caregivers based on more than 170 criteria, such as having a language and social networks in common. From the workers’ perspective, the point is to cut out agency fees and allow carers to charge for their special skills and good reviews, as well as to receive web-based training and support.
Andrew Carter, acting head of the Centre for Cities, a London-based think-tank, notes that the care sector could be an engine for jobs at a time when technology is casting doubt on the future of work. “Much like manufacturing in the 20th century, social care and adult care have the potential for mass employment because the formal requirements to enter those industries are very low,” he says.
Sue Yeandle, a sociologist and care work expert at the University of Leeds in northern England, adds that digital marketplace models could help private clients obtain trusted care as well as letting carers differentiate themselves and find more job satisfaction in an industry that has problems with retaining workers and building their skills.
“One of the reasons the job is unattractive is not just because it’s low paid, but because there’s not much scope for career progression,” she says.
“But there’s a tension between whether you favour universal systems where everyone has access to the same [service], or you move towards a marketplace in which you choose between products because you have more money.”
For public authorities trying to offer services more widely, adult care is a big-ticket budget item. In the UK, by 2020, annual public expenditure for adult care is expected to balloon by 15 per cent to £16.8bn, according to the UK Local Government Association — but funding is projected to fall £4.3bn short.
As a result, technologies that can make care more efficient and automatic will be a big area of innovation, says Mr Gupta. G4S, the world’s biggest security company and a big provider of outsourcing services to governments, has been helping trial robots with the potential to learn enough about their environment to do some of the functions of security guards and care home workers, the company says.
But in the long run, the big question is whether technology will improve the lot of carers or undercut it by rendering them redundant.
Ms Yeandle says: “No one wants to find themselves at the age of 95 stuck somewhere where they’re only cared for by a robot; yet some things are more dignified if they’re done by technology than by a person.”
“If you’ve got urinary incontinence, do you want your careworker turning you in your bed and having a look, or do you want to have a sensor that summons someone electronically?”
Tunstall is a UK-based company that specialises in “assisted living” technology for people with illness or disability. It participated in a study in London’s borough of Havering that indicated its sensors could reduce hospital admissions for falls by 44 per cent.
The products in the trial included devices such as pendants that people could press to summon help in distress, and wearable sensors that could automatically tell if someone was injured.
“The big space is going to be mobile apps and wearables,” says Ali Rogan, external affairs director at Tunstall. “We want to be something you can totally rely upon, and we’re keen on making sure the health professional is not inundated with unnecessary data.”
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