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Goodbye loneliness: Smart care made in China

3. June 2022 Published by Raphael Doerr

At the start of the lockdown many senior citizens worldwide signed up for Zoom for the first time so as to keep in contact with their families or order groceries online. Grandma and granddad learned how online banking works and that making digital payments by smartphone isn’t rocket science. By the start of the second year of the pandemic, the generation of digital seniors was already surfing with relative assurance and exploring the web without help. And not just now and again, but for hours on end. According to the news portal people.cn, 30 percent of elderly users spent more than three hours a day online – and ten percent even more than six hours a day. These examples from China are representative of a trend that can be observed worldwide. The 60-plus generation is becoming increasingly digital, the Internet is no longer terra incognita, as Bitkom’s President Achim Berg put it. The Internet is part of a newly-discovered quality of life, and it promises convenience and simplicity. These trends are particularly visible in Asia, where society is becoming over-aged at a particularly rapid pace, and governments need to take action to prevent the digital divide from widening. Western societies can draw their conclusions from that and take appropriate countermeasures to ensure that senior citizens are also at the top of the digital agenda.

Friend or foe? China’s silver surfers appreciate convenience and service.

Digital support with age-appropriate service

These examples illustrate what’s at issue. For example, at the beginning of the pandemic an elderly woman could not pay for her health insurance in cash because the persons in charge feared that her money might contain the virus. The woman, who had not set up mobile payment on her smartphone, was left at a loss at the service center. In another case, an elderly man was asked to get off the bus: He didn’t have a smartphone and so couldn’t show the driver the health code on the app, which is required in China in public.

China’s society is aging at a particularly rapid rate. The number of Chinese over the age of 60 has increased by 5.4% to 264 million since 2010, according to Beijing’s Bureau of Statistics. This means that just under every one-in-five citizens there, or about 18.7% of the total population, is now over 60. Experts estimate that the number of elderly people in China is expected to reach 380 million by 2050 – almost 30% of the population. By comparison, the EU had a total population of around 447 million at the beginning of 2021. That trend means China is under pressure and must act quickly and prudently. Above all, it’s important to support older people digitally, and that’s happening everywhere right now. To ease elderly citizens’ integration into the digital age, technology companies are offering training and support, for example.

The Chinese apps Taobao, Youku and Ele.me have tailored interfaces to cater to the needs of the silver hair generation, including larger scripts and a more streamlined user experience.

Technology companies are training elderly people to use smartphones and mobile payment, right in the store. Selected technologies are specifically adapted to the elderly so as to improve their quality of life.

New offerings for digital seniors

Alibaba Group’s online marketplace Taobao launched the channel “Taobao for Elders” in 2018 to make account registration and app navigation, for example, easier and more accessible for seniors It was updated at the end of last year. The new version of the shopping app has been tailored even more closely to the needs of older users. Taobao’s “senior mode” features larger texts and icons, simplified navigation and voice-assisted technology, which allows senior citizens to search for products using voice commands. Within the Taobao app, digital seniors can additionally find services and training programs for everything from online shopping and online payments, for booking doctor’s appointments online, as well as a dedicated customer service hotline. The homepage highlights games that are popular among elderly users, including the Baba Farm program, where users tend virtual crops to unlock discounts for agricultural produce.

It’s not surprising that Alibaba keeps on enhancing its platforms and services for the silver hair market, which was estimated to be worth RMB 3.79 trillion ($588 billion) in 2020 by the China National Committee on Aging. Elderly people will likely be even more important to the economy than Generation Z “very, very soon,” predicts China marketing expert Ashley Dudarenok. According to the National Social Science Fund, the over-60s market will soar to 100 trillion yuan (€13.9 trillion) by 2050, accounting for 33 percent of China’s gross domestic product.

Another example is Ele.me, a food delivery service Alibaba bought back in 2016 for over $1 billion. Ele.me – the name roughly means “Hungry now?” in Chinese – allows users to order meals from restaurants and cafés in their area using a smartphone app. The food is then brought to the customer’s home or workplace by Ele.me. Ele.me is very popular in China. For some restaurants, food delivery is an important part of their business, and that trend has intensified in the wake of the recent outbreak of the novel coronavirus.

Goodbye loneliness

Because of the shortage of younger people, the country is looking for practical solutions: central data collection, motion sensors and mini-robots – machines instead of humans. Pilot projects show what caring for the aged in China might look like in the future. Due to increasing life expectancy and a simultaneously declining birth rate, China faces the demographic challenge of an aging population. While children and grandchildren used to take care of their old relatives, mini-robots are to assume that task in the future. The Communist Party’s Five-Year Plan promises China’s senior citizens an end to loneliness and a carefree autumn of life. China is planning for those times. And its solution is: care through technology. A myriad of health data pours into huge command centers in real time. If something’s not alright, the computer triggers an alarm and the call center takes over, calls and asks if the care recipient needs help.

Central data monitoring of elderly people

“The data of around 160,000 seniors is gathered here: their blood pressure, heart rate, movements and much more. That is China’s vision of elderly care in the future. “We also analyze their consumption of water and electricity,” explains Zhai Weikang from Tianjin municipality. “Family members are also sent the data so that they’re aware of the situation. An alarm is triggered if water consumption suddenly stops.” High-tech engineers like Weikang are highly sought-after experts. China faces the threat of becoming an over-aged society. In no other country is the population pyramid being inverted as fast as it is here.

As Weltspiegel reported in a feature last year, “the platform in the eastern Chinese megacity of Tainjin is one of more than two hundred pilot projects in the country. A showcase project – which is why a lot of officials accompanied the filming. In a residential complex, they chose 65-year-old Liu Xiuhua for an interview. She gave a tour of her apartment. “That’s called an infrared detector. Look, it’s switched on. When you approach it, the red light goes on. If no movement is detected from a person in a certain period of time, say more than 24 hours, it passes that information to your children or community workers.” Liu got all the devices for free – because she participated in the pilot project so early. The smart wristband is also one of them. It’s connected to the mini-robot in the living room.

Smart care made in China

You can watch the report here on YouTube. Even if the digital divide can’t be closed overnight, the country is preparing. The report with the title “When the robot checks on grandma” contains passages such “It’s time for your tablets, says the white, round saucer-eyed egg. It’s 65-year-old Liu Xiuhua’s speaking mini-robot. She has had it for two months and is thrilled about it. Because the little helper listens to her and solicitously registers what she does at home. It can even say where Ms. Liu has put her front door key if she happens to mislay it again. The senior wears a wristband that measures her blood pressure, heart rate and temperature; it also counts her hours of sleep and steps. If there are any irregularities, Liu’s son is notified via a smartphone app. An alarm is also triggered if her water or electricity consumption is not normal. The data is received at the same time by Tianjin municipality. All the information is processed and shown on a gigantic screen about the width of a tennis court. Germany is not yet so far; data protection and data security do not currently allow such gigantic amounts of data to be collected. When it comes to the smart home and smart care, consumers are largely left to fend for themselves. The digitization of municipal governance has only just begun in Germany. A study conducted by the Munich-based Ifo Institute last November concludes that Germany tends to be in the middle of the pack internationally in this respect. It even sees public administration here as being below-average. “The need to catch up is particularly evident when it comes to user-friendliness, data exchange between authorities and digital administrative offerings for companies,” writes Die Welt, citing the authors of the study.

Geriatric medicine in China started to develop as a medical specialty in the mid-1950s. According to the state plan for the development of senior citizen work and the elderly care system during the 13th Five-Year Plan, departments of geriatric medicine are to be established in more than 35 percent of grade II or higher hospitals by 2020. That figure is to be increased from 50 to 90 between 2022 and 2030.

“At the same time, the elderly care system has been continuously improving,” Radio China International writes on its website.  “With the ‘medical care plus care for the elderly’ model, the country aims to tackle the problem of a faster-aging society effectively. The model is currently being tested in 90 Chinese cities. Around 4,000 such institutions have been founded.”

New life in the metaverse

A growing number of elderly people in Asia are turning more to social media, online games and other Internet services since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic because they spend more time at home, concludes a survey by Euromonitor titled “Top 10 Global Consumer Trends 2022.”

Approximately 10% of seniors surveyed in the region said they own virtual reality headsets that allow them to explore the metaverse, the growing galaxy of online experiences touted as the next phase of the Internet. That figure in North America and Europe is about 2%.

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