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Ageing Innovation Accelerator Blog 1: 'Reactivation' (by Simon Green)

Posted by Anja McCarthy (Admin) 2 months ago Posted in Innovation for Ageing Workshops

At the Ageing Innovation Accelerator workshop in December, our aim was to understand better the physical challenges that individuals face as they age. By better understanding the challenges, we will be well placed to come up with novel solutions based on genuine insights at the next workshops in January and February.

The December workshop included 60 people with an interest in ageing. Some currently run small businesses, some are part of larger organisations in the public, private and third sectors and some just want to find out more about opportunities arising from an ageing population. Importantly, the workshop included people from a very wide age range (early twenties to 70+) and with a wide set of experiences. At the SuperNetwork, we strongly argue that intelligent design and effective innovation arises from bringing together different perspectives in looking at a problem.

The workshop introduced the LifeCurve concept (see for background) and outlined four approaches to tackling the challenges identified through the LifeCurve:

  1. Building reserve, so that people have more capacity to deal with issues as they age;
  2. Reactivation, allowing people to regain function that they may have previously lost;
  3. Compensation, using tools and techniques helping people to carry out tasks they couldn’t otherwise do;
  4. Care, where older people require support from others to perform important daily tasks.

I facilitated the session on building reserve and reactivation. The session involved six groups of people and was helped massively through the input of representatives from NICA and the VOICE older people’s network. The key points discussed are outlined below.


Health and fitness

All six groups mentioned physical fitness as a key way to delay functional decline. Rather than focusing on aerobic fitness though, it appears that muscle strength (whether in carrying out heavy tasks like carrying shopping or in small motions like brushing teeth) is more important at all the stages of the LifeCurve.

Maintaining strength also implies maintaining a healthy diet. As people age, they can experience reduced sense of smell, which affects the experience of eating. In addition, if people are living alone they may be less likely to cook proper meals, resulting in weight (and strength) loss.

How might we help people build and maintain muscle mass?

How might we help older people to get the nutrition they need and enjoy their food more?


Awareness and behaviour change

The groups reacted strongly to the LifeCurve concepts and particularly to the idea that they had direct control over how they age. Whilst public perceptions appear to be that ageing is something that happens to people, LifeCurve suggests that the loss of function accompanying ageing is something we can control, delay and potentially even avoid completely. What if we could compress the loss of functional decline into the last few days, weeks or months of life, rather than losing function over a number of years? The groups suggested that greater awareness of how people age could start to change behaviour and lead to a healthier older population.

Changing behaviour is notoriously difficult but the groups talked about a process for effecting change, starting with awareness, providing incentives to change, motivating people and making change as easy as possible.

How might we encourage people to make changes in their own lives, following the awareness – incentivise – motivate – ease model?


Social effects

The groups talked extensively about how comparison with others is often how we determine our own choices. If the LifeCurve becomes accepted as a way of educating people about the impact of their choices, could benchmarking be a way to measure progress (or delaying decline) and encourage changes in behaviour? Positive role models and peer pressure can be important drivers of change. This is more difficult if people are isolated but positive examples like the impact of the Nintendo Wii in encouraging people to take up limited exercise, the 10,000 steps encouraged by pedometers and the effects that joining clubs can have on participation were also mentioned. Benchmarking could also be relevant to healthcare professionals and family members in identifying the initial signs of decline and considering intervention, particularly with older people who also have a degree of cognitive decline.

The groups also highlighted the importance of mental health in this context as well, both in terms of the impact of mental health issues on participation and on the benefits of participating on an individual’s mental health.

Finally, the impact of ensuring interaction between different generations, cultures and interests was highlighted. This tends to happen naturally where there is a common interest pulling people together. However, the description of activities as being for the ‘elderly’ or ‘pensioners’ was seen as off-putting to many and preventing inter-generational interactions.

How might we create mechanisms for benchmarking people, so that they can see how they compare to peers (potentially in a fun, competitive way, or in conjunction with healthcare professionals)?

How might we increase participation in clubs and societies amongst older people, particularly where the memberships are inter-generational?


Perceptions and communication

Building on the previous comments, the language and imagery used in connection with older people was seen as a big issue in preventing people taking responsibility for their own LifeCurve. If older people are always shown as being in care homes, there is an expectation from society and from individuals that this is the norm. There are parallels here with the benchmarking points made above, as well as with the aversion to ‘pensioner’ language.

Some of the research findings around the impact of positivity are relevant here; those individuals that have a positive mindset around ageing demonstrate slower functional decline than those that have a negative or resigned mindset.

How might we create a more positive perception of ageing through language and imagery?


Housing and environment

Whilst the groups didn’t go into a huge amount of detail, there was mention of the importance of the environment someone lives in on their functional decline. For example people who live in housing that is not appropriate for them could end up declining more quickly. One participant mentioned an experience of not wanting to go out after dark because the surrounding streets were poorly-lit, meaning a significant reduction in activity levels in the winter months, having an impact on health. The discussion went on to focus on the importance of confidence in people being more active, whether this is affected by physical experiences (e.g. a past fall meaning the individual doesn’t want to risk being outside) or emotional effects (such as a fear of being attacked or taken advantage of).

How might we ensure that people are living in the most appropriate environment for their stage of life?

How might we build confidence in people to encourage them to regain function?


Trigger points and transitions

Some personal experiences were shared that suggested an importance around particular points in life. For example, retirement was seen as a transition that could be used positively to encourage newly-found time to be used in ways that delay functional decline (e.g. taking up an activity) or could be negative in isolating an individual from past routines and motivations, leading to reduced activity.

Other examples around people’s choices in their 20s, 30s and 40s and how these choices impacted on health in later life were also mentioned.

How might we make use of an understanding of trigger points to drive positive behaviours?


Stubbornness versus independence

The groups talked at length about the idea that people don’t always access the help they may need at certain stages and could be seen as stubborn. However, the LifeCurve concepts brought an entirely different dimension to the discussion. LifeCurve suggests that people who continue to carry out tasks they are capable of doing and shunning unnecessary help may delay functional decline. Those that take help for a task that they could possibly do themselves will lose the ability to carry out that task more quickly. Personal examples were shared of people in their 80s and 90s continuing to carry out what were seen as very labour-intensive and perhaps unsuitable tasks, such as using a manual washing machine. Anecdotally, these individuals were seen as stubborn but were noticeably more active right up to death, suggesting that they had effectively delayed functional decline (‘compressed the LifeCurve’).

In this context, it is possible that providing care that is unnecessary is actual detrimental. An over-reliance on technology may make this worse.

How might we delay functional decline by ensuring people continue to carry out challenging tasks as they age?


Personal choice

In all of the above, there is some tendency to assume that everyone is the same and ignore the diversity of the population. There is no basis to assume that older people have uniform needs, wants or desires, in fact the older population may well be more diverse than younger age groups, having had longer to form their own opinions and preferences.

The groups also commented on the power of indirect persuasion and on people being more committed to decisions they have had a genuine say in making.

In this context, wherever possible the individual should take the lead in decision-making about their own lives. The provision of choice is important and is perhaps under-emphasised in current product and service design.

How might we provide more choice to people, so that they can select the products and services that are most appropriate (and attractive) to them?


Inclusive design

Finally, much of the discussion focused solely on older people as users of products and services. However, inclusive design was mentioned in the context of designing things to work for everyone, rather than one demographic segment. Examples were given around kitchen design, which tends to include work surfaces at a certain height and cupboards of a certain size, not allowing (at a reasonable cost) people to choose the right layout for them. In this context, the question isn’t necessarily about how to design well for people with dementia, or people with limited upper body movement, or people in wheelchairs, but more on a modular, flexible approach which can be adapted to anyone.

How might we ensure that design incorporates the flexibility to be suitable for all?


Identified challenges and next steps

We will now be doing more work around the ‘How might we…?’ questions above, with the aim of identifying two that we really want to focus on. These will be presented at the next workshop on 10th January at the Discovery Museum, Newcastle. The aim of the 10th is to identify solutions to some of these questions, which we can then help interested individuals and organisations to develop into commercial products and services.

The workshop is open to all and registration is via


About the Ageing Innovation Accelerator

The Ageing Innovation Accelerator aims to create new products and services of value to an ageing population and ensure they are successfully commercialised. It is led by the Innovation SuperNetwork and National Innovation Centre for Ageing teams. Northstar Ventures can provide funding for suitable businesses as they progress through the programme and Newcastle City Council are offering space for the businesses to work in. The programme is supported by the Aging2.0 Newcastle Chapter and European Regional Development Fund.

In this first running of the Accelerator, we are focusing on the physical decline experienced by people as they age. However, this is only one small element of the possible challenges and opportunities posed by an ageing population and it is intended to run further versions of the Accelerator in the future.

Simon Green

This post was edited on Jan 8, 2019 by Meera Vijay

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