Problems caused by aging populations are a scourge of modern society, but two very different countries are finding solutions together.
The demographics of the world are changing. Many developed countries have an aging population, but this same problem is also increasingly affecting emerging nations as well. The strain an aging population places upon society is felt across many areas: businesses have trouble finding workers, governments struggle to finance healthcare and pensions, while the elderly themselves often find themselves on the outside of society looking in.
Two seemingly very different countries – Finland and China – are now discovering that they have similar problems due to an aging population. The diversity can be a strength, though, as the two nations realise that their different cultures and expertise can be used together in a partnership against a common problem.
Demographics of aging
“Finland has the fastest aging demographics in Europe,” says Olli Nuuttila, Managing Director of Active Life Village. “China is also aging fast. The two countries have similar situations, but they came from different causes. Finland had a baby boom after the war, and China had the ‘one child’ policy.”
Currently China has about five workers for every pensioner. By the middle of the century projections show there will be only 1.6 people of working age for every person retired. The same thing is happening in Finland, but only sooner and more severe. With such a huge portion of the population aging, society faces the dilemma of keeping them healthy and active while minimising the costs.
One of the keys to this is to help people stay in their homes. Nuuttila points out that people are typically happier, healthier and more active in their own home. A project in which he is involved, Active Life Home, demonstrates a technologically advanced flat, specially equipped to help a senior citizen stay independent at home.
“People want to live at home as long as possible,” Nuuttila explains. “We want to create an environment so the elderly can live happily at home.”
China has long realised this, and the nation has a culture of children and family taking care of the aged. What may be new to some, though, is the role technology can play. Moreover, there is the way these technological solutions can be developed: through partnerships between public institutions and private companies, and even between such organisations of different nations.
Shanghai Expo and eldercare
Development Manager of Active Life Village Pia Kiviharju says that the seeds for Sino-Finnish cooperation in eldercare were planted during the Shanghai World Expo. During the Expo the Finnish delegation presented various concepts in the field. CaringTV demonstrated virtual social and interactive services, Active Life Home showed home-based services, and the Orkidea hospital concept in Espoo revealed a health service centre.
“The Shanghai World Expo created a forum where we showcased concepts in eldercare,” says professor Matti Hämäläinen of Aalto University School of Science. “The Chinese have a phenomenal challenge ahead with an aging population, and they are preparing to adopt and to create new solutions.”
The Chinese invited Finns to tell more in different seminars and workshops, and the relationship evolved into a joint initiative. “ActiveAging,” which was announced in October, aims to create a novel service platform for aging people living at home. Through research collaboration the venture utilises high technology to facilitate personal activity and social interaction. While the collaboration is a good start, participants hope that the Sino-Finnish cooperation in eldercare will continue to evolve.
“We have six different delegations coming in the spring and summer,” says Kiviharju. “They are coming from Beijing, Shanghai and Wuhan. They will visit different institutions like Laurea, Aalto University, Active Life Village and the City of Espoo. On 25 May we will have the China – Finland Active Aging Seminar, and we will invite different Finnish companies and organisations.”
Sino-Finnish cooperation in eldercare
“I think the Chinese can learn from us how to apply technology to new service models in eldercare,” says Nuuttila. “Finland is known simultaneously as a good welfare state and high-technology nation.”
In addition, Nuuttila says that Finland has much to learn from China. Specifically, he is extremely impressed with the communal atmosphere of eldercare in China. As an anecdote, he says that one can see senior citizens gather together in parks to exercise early in the morning.
“We can learn from them how to respect the elderly,” he says. “In Chinese culture old people are a respected part of society. In the Finnish mentality we outsource our eldercare to society. Children and friends forget about the provision of care and maybe visit once a year at Christmas. We need new thinking, and we need to apply this to our service models.”
Hämäläinen concurs, saying that there is much for the two nations to teach each other. As an example he cites Finland’s technological prowess and China’s immense execution capability.
Wellbeing technologies and solutions
Nuuttila says that technology can play a fundamental role in helping the aged stay active and independent at home. The key is to first determine why people are no longer able or willing to stay at home.
“The first and most important cause is loneliness,” Nuuttila explains. “Communication technology can improve the connections with the rest of society, but we don’t want to replace the human touch with technology. We simply want to add more options. Secondly, people don’t want to stay at home because they feel insecure, and technology can also help with this. Thirdly, the elderly need support for activities such as cleaning or running errands. Services such as these can be provided.”
Hämäläinen explains that technology can improve the quality of life for the aged in other ways. One way is through monitoring activity and health. Checking the physical condition, such as weight or blood pressure, is one aspect. Another is looking at daily activity and how it develops over time. A change in daily tasks could indicate a change in wellbeing that does not become apparent in regular health checks. Of course, this monitoring must be done carefully.
“This should happen with dignity,” Hämäläinen insists. “This is not Big Brother. There is no camera watching someone’s every move.”
The path ahead
The greying of many countries is due to an increased life expectancy and decreased fertility, and the present trend is expected to continue. The International Monetary Fund has estimated that by 2050 the entire continent of Europe will have only two workers for every pensioner. The scale of the problem is daunting.
“This is happening across the world,” says Nuuttila. “An aging population is a global trend, but we are at the epicentre of the phenomenon.”
A number of institutions are exploring future partnership possibilities. These include research groups, non-profits, universities, public sector players and for-profit corporations. It is hoped that close bonds can benefit both Chinese and Finns alike.
“There are great challenges but also great opportunities,” Hämäläinen concludes. “This is our chance to really address the issue.”
Active Life Village
A non-profit organisation, Active Life Village is a catalyst for welfare service innovations. Partners include service and technology companies as well as public institutions. A key project is Active Life Home, which includes a show room that demonstrates the technology and services which help the elderly stay independent at home. This includes such items as a medicine dispenser, automatic lighting, a video phone and home security equipment.
CaringTV is a service concept where interactive programmes are broadcast online through video conferencing. Participants can communicate with each other, perform physical therapy simultaneously and receive guidance from health experts. It was even used during the Shanghai Expo, when Finland’s President Tarja Halonen interacted with Finns from her place in the Finnish Pavilion Kirnu.
Finland and China compared
|% of population over 65 today||16.5%||7%|
|% of population over 65 in 2020||23%||12%|
Sources: Finpro, Université de Genève, World Bank
text: DAVID J. CORD, Helsinki Times