Meaningful Innovation for Aging Populations

My father John Wilbur, a former NFL player, lived with brain and nerve damage – symptoms that describe the phenomena we call “dementia,” where cognitive ability is lost. He passed away this December. Living with him the last year of his life was something that opened my eyes to the diversity of ways we experience the world, especially in a time when over 35.6 million people worldwide have Alzheimer’s or memory loss caused by dementia.


Figure 1. John Wilbur, my hero.

As I became more of a caregiver, the way we related to each other changed yet we remained extremely close and had a great time. One of the traditions my dad and I had was to light incense, breathe together, then put on a record (his favorite was Hair or Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young). Sometimes I would play my guitar for him, or play certain frequencies. He loved to go out for breakfast and read the paper. I even took him for his last swim in the ocean at one of his favorite spots – Mokuleia, North Shore, Oahu. Near the end he did not like water, I believe because of his neurological damage.

My dad’s independence was key for him. Naturally, he didn’t like being treated as though he were a second rate citizen, which sometimes can happen in rehab clinics or nursing homes. For a human, it’s incredibly weird to be treated mechanically, though it understandably can happen due to the drudgery of the work and the shortage of labor in the caregiver industry.

Japan’s government, aging faster than any country, is responding to the challenge of providing caregivers to the elderly with a series of robots designed to support the elderly. This is to supplement the skeleton crew of 1.3m workers in a climate that demands 2m professional carers to look after the country’s 30m elderly and “infirm” as the Economist article said.

One of these robots is a Hybrid Assistive Limb manufactured by Cyberdyne, a nine-year-old robotics venture founded by Yoshiyuki Sankai of Tsukuba University. The battery-powered suit functions as an exoskeleton, sensing and amplifying the wearer’s muscle action when he attempts to lift or carry heavy objects. The suit can be used by carers for picking patients up off a bed. Or it can be worn by patients to help them move around and do things for themselves. These cost ¥178,000 ($1,780) apiece, and they’re sold to various hospitals and welfare facilities in Japan. It is the world’s first assistive nursing mechanism to be certified under a draft international safety standard for personal robots.

The second is a small, battery-powered trolley that helps the infirm to walk by themselves. The third is a portable, self-cleaning bedside toilet. The fourth is a monitoring robot capable of tracking and reporting the whereabouts of patients suffering from dementia. The government wants all to be in production by 2016. There are many more preparing for market.

Givaudan, the perfume company, is taking a different tact and addressing the more complex issue of memory loss and the attendant depression which comes from that. What good are robots for when you don’t have the will to live? Partnering with JWT Singapore, they designed “Smell a Memory” kits to draw on olfactory memories and awaken different parts of the brain for people with dementia and Alzheimer’s. Consulting with therapists and rehabilitation experts, they personalize the kits based on family history, ethnicity, age and personal stories. Some of the custom smells include “Bedtime Stories”, “Mom’s Cooking”, “Prayer”, “School Days” and more to provoke engagement through experiential smells.

“One of the key therapy goals for Dementia care is to draw people out and help them re-engage with the world and with loved ones. Over time patients often become withdrawn and lose interest in food, activities and the people around them. A tool like this could be critical to their emotional and physical health,” said Andrew Soo, Manager from Soo’s Nursing home.

In a time when our culture is prototyping scent cameras (about the equivalent of an early 35mm), increasingly there will be products and services designed to engage our nonvisual senses and explore the vast spectrum of human consciousness beyond Western normative perception. (And possibly not involving illegal drugs.)

Figure 2. Scent Camera

Relating to people with dementia and Alzheimer’s leaves me with an incredible amount of respect for the process of being so completely “in the moment,” in addition to the journey one goes on while caregiving. Being with my dad as his mind changed certainly felt different, but his personal voice, charm and emotional intelligence were not dulled by the damaged neurons. In line with this gut feeling, a colleague at the Institute for the Future sent me an article on studies that show some of the mental faculties most critical to social relationships – in particular, the ability to infer other people’s beliefs and desires and to engage in moral evaluation – are actually among the least impaired by the cognitive impairments that characterize Alzheimer’s disease. Perhaps we are underestimating our “infirm.”

Following the NFL’s treatment of the issue of brain damage closely, my dad and I were able to witness last year’s call for the NFL’s first grand challenge looking for methods for diagnosis and prognosis of “mild traumatic brain injuries.” A growing issue with retired players, a lawsuit is underway relating to reparations for brain injuries suffered by NFL players. A real old school headbanger, my dad was an All Pro lineman for the Cowboys, the Rams and the Redskins, playing with Pete Gent during his time in the Cowboys and lead by legendary Redskins coach George Allen.

After asking about “dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, or other memory-related disease,” Michigan researchers found that 6.1 per cent of players aged 50 and over had received such a diagnosis, five times higher than the national average of 1.2 per cent.

Now the NFL is partnering with General Electric to commit $60 million over four years to accelerate brain research, diagnosis, and treatment. Their “Head Health Initiative” is assembling top military and academic experts to oversee studies on brain trauma, and looking to the crowd for solutions. The second challenge just finished: Innovative Approaches For Preventing and Identifying Brain Injuries.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell told GE Chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt, “Player health and safety is our No. 1 challenge.”

With a growing market for dementia and Alzheimer’s related products, it’s surprising the NFL is not focusing more on innovation relating to retired players suffering from dementia. In addition to supporting the retired players, products developed would surely benefit the wider population of elderly suffering from similar symptoms (and turn the corners of their bottom line into even more of a smile).

Entrepreneurs are already meeting this challenge. Aging 2.0 is one incubator/founders program for business models looking to solve problems related to aging – particularly independence.

The UK launched its National Dementia Strategy in 2009 and the Prime Minister’s Challenge on Dementia in 2012, and hosted the G8 Dementia Summit in 2013. As part of the legacy of the UK’s G8 presidency, follow-up hackathon-style events on dementia will be held in the UK, Japan, Canada, Italy and the USA in 2014 and 2015.

There’s real money in these lean startup solutions. At Singapore’s Active Ageing Hackathon, eligible teams were granted up to $50,000 by National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre through its Jump Start Fund, which provides early stage funding to jump start ideas involving volunteerism and/or philanthropy, and prototype them.

There is a substantial need given the aging populations around the world yet there is no one cure or solution which will work for everyone. This leaves room for a diversity of therapeutic and functionality-related products and services.

In the style of Givaudin’s sense-experimentation, could there be positive neuron stimulation from tools that help you see with your tongue or through sound? What about dining in the dark?

Or, as the Osher Center practices, maybe there will be more mindfulness centers geared towards those with dementia and Alzheimer’s and their caregivers.

Will the NFL step up to invest in these kinds of solutions? Maybe so. Or maybe it’ll be the rising NFL players cum entrepreneurs who will see the market potential of these services as well as the benefit which could be delivered to thousands of retired NFL players suffering from brain damage.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s