Ageing opens up opportunities for engineers

Older and retired engineers could help develop new products for the UK’s ageing population.

A new Institution of Mechanical Engineers report, 21st Century Engineering for an Ageing Population, makes five recommendations about how engineering and engineers could play a role in making life easier for older users.

“The number of people living past 85 is set to double in the next 20 years, so there is an increasingly pressing need for government and industry to step up their efforts to cater for older users,” said report author Professor Garth Johnson, an ageing expert at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers’ Biomedical Engineering Association.

“More work should be done to promote innovation for older user-friendly products and companies should consider harnessing the expertise of older or retired engineers when developing household products, vehicles or other devices for mainstream use,” he added in a statement.

“Sometimes relatively minor adjustments can make a huge difference, for example clearer public signage or grab handles, but in the future driverless cars and robots in the home could allow older people to live more mobile or independent lives for longer.”

The report recommends that the government and industry should ensure all major contracts for public infrastructure have an earmarked budget catering for older users and customers.

It also calls for government innovation agency Innovate UK to call for bids to create state-of-the-art design initiatives for older user-friendly ideas and products.

Another recommendation is for companies developing household products, vehicles or other devices for mainstream use to introduce quotas in product design teams, including a number of older people where possible, which could include retired professional engineers.

Standards relating to engineering products should be reviewed to ensure that they are keeping pace with the needs of their ever-growing application to older people in the UK and the rest of the world, the report says.

It also calls for universities, colleges and industry to ensure that the training of engineers and designers includes information about the functional abilities and restrictions of older people.

While in some cases an older person may become seriously ill, the majority face a combination of long-term conditions with consequences for mobility, vision, hearing and balance. This needs to be understood by the engineering designer, the report says.

Just 15 per cent of the UK population was over 65 in 1985.  This rose to 17 per cent in 2010 and is set to reach 23 per cent by 2035.

The number of people aged 85+ is expected to double over the next 20 years and treble in the next 30 years.

The greatest change in the past few decades has been the increase in people surviving beyond 85, the report says. This is particularly true of women, about 70 per cent of whom live alone in their own home.

Assistive technology development aims to ensure safety and independence at home and provide accessible and usable transport systems to maintain social interaction with friends and family.

The engineering community has a major role to play in providing robust and appropriate technology, the report says.

Developments include those that allow safe outdoor travel. The advent of driverless vehicles holds great promise for older people who can no longer drive, particularly at night, the report adds. Relatively simple robots are being developed to clean the floor or cut the grass. Others may help with moving food in or out of a hot oven.

Engineers will need to have changes to their education and skills development to ensure they are more aware of the effects of reducing faculties on an individual’s ability to use their designs, the report says. A transition in thinking is needed from products specifically designed for assisted living for the few to generally applicable solutions suitable for the many, the report adds.

It also points out that while growth in the number of older people may increase the costs of healthcare, the likelihood of a longer healthy lifespan could provide an opportunity for increased time at work.

People could also have a longer time in healthy retirement to learn new skills and/or contribute to society.