Lockdown is giving us a taste of old age. Let’s build stuff to make it better.
NIA Fellow and co-founder of the UK’s fastest growing digital pharmacy Echo, Stephen Bourke has spent his time during the COVID-19 lockdown thinking about his customers. Realising that HealthTech founders tend to be 30 to 40 years younger than the patients they serve, he explains below why innovators should use this experience to gain a deeper understanding of their audience.
We’re getting old. There are nearly 12 million people aged 65+ in the UK. Over 85s are the fastest growing age group. By the middle of this century, a quarter of the population will be aged 65 or older.
But you already know all this.
What you might not appreciate is that lockdown is giving you a taste of what life is like for people over 65. If, like me, you have no direct experience of caring for an older relative, this is a glimpse into the future.
Lockdown presents HealthTech founders with the single biggest opportunity to learn, first-hand, what many of our patients deal with every day. We should use this experience to build products to make life easier for them Here are the areas that I think need focus.
Loneliness sucks. Even if you are lucky enough to be self-isolating with family and friends, most of us yearn to go outside and meet people. Unfortunately, for the 3.8 million people over the age of 65 who live alone, this is their reality. 49% of them say that television or pets are their main form of company.
Loneliness kills. It’s associated with a 40% increased risk of dementia. As a society, we rely on an army of volunteers to fight it, but it’s not enough. We need a tech solution, a step change from the TV, that facilitates meaningful human interaction and keeps our minds and spirits alive.
Mobility, independence and isolation
Your legs might be working just fine, but being stuck inside, not being able to pop into Pret, being dependent on deliveries for almost everything… there are a lot of parallels with old age.
Disability-free life years at age 65 years in England is 9.9 years, which means millions of older people struggle to do what we take for granted, and lose independence and confidence as a result.
As many now realise staying physically active is hard when you are housebound. Life admin is also difficult. Founders are hardwired to think that everything happens online, but ecommerce still only accounts for 20% of retail sales in the UK.
So we need to imagine a world where lockdown is here to stay, and build stuff to make it more tolerable.
Side note: One thing that we aren’t getting to experience right now is how difficult many online services are for those with visual, hearing, cognitive or motor-skill impairment (Echo included). In many circles accessibility is a by-word for ugly. This thinking needs to stop. Designers need to make accessibility beautiful.
Remote healthcare management
This is the most obvious thing for me to point out, but I still think we are a long, long way off. Not being able to physically get to a GP, hospital or pharmacy remains a major issue for everyone during lockdown and the elderly in peacetime. But as Ivan the founder of Suvera points out this is because we still live in a world where ‘no appointment means no healthcare’.
Many of today’s remote solutions are considered second best, pitted against some fictional world where everyone has access to unlimited, high-quality healthcare and the GP regularly drops in for a cup of tea. This world never existed, not for the masses.
So let us imagine a world where face-to-face, synchronous treatment simply isn’t an option. A world where you never ‘see’ a doctor. It’s extreme, but if we can build stuff under these conditions it will transform society.
Again, a final note on loneliness. Older people who live alone are 50% more likely to visit A&E than those living with others, and three quarters of GPs see patients everyday who come in mainly because they are lonely. Moving things online comes with a hidden cost which cannot be ignored.
Author: Stephen Bourke
Sources: Almost all the statistics in this post come from Age UK’s ‘Later Life in the United Kingdom 2019’. Age UK (then Age Concern) gave me my first job after uni, and I am grateful to everything they taught me about old age.