Smart aging in the age of Nintendo. The limits of the for-profit model in senior care.

Day 1 of the Ageing Asia Investment Forum (for more coverage see here, here and here), we focused upon the ageing experience of the world’s most aged population – Japan. I am well-acquainted to with the Japanese story; having been a visiting researcher at the Tohoku University in Sendai City in 2010 (This was before the 2011 earthquake that hit the region.). I spent three months examining the active ageing programs in that city, and had the opportunity to join the elderly as a participant-observer in some of their programs. I am convinced of the Japanese approach in helping their older persons to age actively and remain engaged in the society – the extensive availability of active ageing programs for the elderly and the community support often availed to the elderly in their own neighbourhood.

The pre-conference workshop led by Professor Hiroyuki Murata introduced his “smart ageing” strategy as innovation solution to meet the challenges of an ageing population. (Incidentally, he is also from Tohoku University and serves at the Smart Ageing International Research Center (SAIRC) there.) Sounds fancy? Well, it’s actually not that complicated and really similar to the World Health Organization’s concept of active ageing. Professor Murata is simply suggesting that ageing-related challenges can be opportunities for personal growth. This can be achieved through: (1) Cognitive stimulation through simple learning exercises (2) Physical exercise (3) Nutrition (4) Social Interaction.

It is advice that we have been well-aware of, but the Japanese have uncanny knack of putting a quirky twists to them – the Nintendo DS Brain Training for adults, the Smart Ageing College, “Leaf Business” (A business involving older persons to pick leaves such as maple, persimmon etc for sale to restaurant in cities). I have to confess, I had fun joining the elderly in their activities when I was in Sendai. The list of active ageing (or as Professor Murata calls it “smart ageing”) programs available in Japan can go on endlessly – gateball, sewing club, radio transmission club, beading club etc!

Professor Murata has successfully translated his “smart ageing” strategy into a business model such as Curves Japan, a fitness chain for women in Japan; and the first college-linked retirement community in Japan. However it leads me to wonder – Do we have to turn “smart ageing” strategies into a business model?

Firstly, such programs have successfully been provided by the grassroots and government. Faced with an ageing population, governments such as Singapore and Japan have committed resources to rolling out active/ smart ageing programs to keep their older persons engaged in the society. My experience in Japan has also revealed that in communities with high levels of social capital, citizens would band together to ensure that similar programs are available at no or low costs.

[pullquote_right]Professor Murata has successfully translated his “smart ageing” strategy into a business model such as Curves Japan, a fitness chain for women in Japan; and the first college-linked retirement community in Japan. However it leads me to wonder – Do we have to turn “smart ageing” strategies into a business model?[/pullquote_right]Secondly, would the commercialization of active/smart ageing programs become an inhibiting factor to participation from the elderly? The situation in Japan is unique as the current generation of elderly has benefited from the boom years of Japan’s rapid economic growth. Many hold substantial private savings that allow them a certain level of social and geographical mobility. Participation in commercial active/smart ageing programs is therefore common. But this might not be the case in other countries as elderly often fall under the low income category, an expenditure on this would be considered a luxury!

However, I do acknowledge that commercialization of active/ smart ageing programs can act as an incentive to inject some innovation into its delivery. The Nitendo DS Brain Training for adults is a case in point. This compared to community driven programs which are much simpler in nature and fall into the usual category of sewing or brisk walking clubs. But I guess there has to be a healthy balance of public-private programs for the elderly in every society. And perhaps the most important bottom line that we should be concerned about – are the older persons in our society benefitting from these programs and enjoying themselves? Be it a Nintendo DS Brain Training session or the good old sewing session, the welfare of our older persons should be the leading concern. As an individual who strongly advocates the rights and participation of the elderly in the society, it is a sentiment that I hope people can share, and perhaps we should endeavour to look beyond the dollars and cents of this ageing phenomenon.

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