Ancient doctors were experts of bodily health, while Western philosophers professed to cure ‘diseases of the soul’. But neither truly understood the mysteries of the mind.

Today, mental health is gaining increased attention in countries with ageing populations in Asia. In 2011, Korea, China and Japan had higher suicide rates among the elderly than other age groups. Singapore reported an all-time high rate in 2018.

Nations are exploring how technology could help the elderly tackle isolation, build new skills, and maintain mental wellbeing.

Digital care and digital comfort

Research suggests that loneliness now rivals obesity and diabetes as the top cause of premature death. Depression and dementia are a growing public health challenge in the Asia-Pacific region. Changes and uncertainties are particularly straining for the elderly, says DXC’s Head of Innovation Labs in Asia, Akshay Saigal.

To tackle this, the lab is working on a pioneering partnership of natural language processing (NLP) and visual behaviour assessment technologies geared towards assessing and monitoring patients’ needs based on a number of factors including age. This digital assistant can help provide mental health support and medical insurance advice.

They are not alone. In Japan, where coronavirus is putting strain on workers caring for one of the world’s largest elderly populations, Thai robot Dinsow has had a breakthrough, after a number of partnerships with Japanese hospitals and health institutions. The tablet-faced bot can screen movies, and allow loved-ones to automatically dial in for video calls. More seriously, it can also immediately alert a local hospital and ambulance in the event of an emergency.

Dinsow joins a gang of digital care assistants already established in Japan: Pepper the “carebot”, who provides entertainment and explains medical reports to elderly care home patients, and Palro the mini robot, assisting in companionship and physical therapy.

Making tech a smooth transition

In a digitally savvy world, it is easy to assume that tech comes as second nature. Yet for a generation raised pre-digital, it’s not always a smooth adjustment, and the current climate has added an urgency to the need to adapt. As one Singaporean senior in isolation told Today Online, “Those people who know how to use the internet … can listen to music, watch shows. Just that I don’t know how.”

Swedish company No-Isolation launched ‘KOMP’ with an aim to address this issue through “revolutionary technology for those who didn’t grow up with it”. Their tablet combines a high contrast screen for easy-to-see content, and a simple one button interface to maximise accessibility for older users. But for No-Isolation co-founder, Karen Dolva, the real triumph is the ease at which KOMP lets seniors check in and stream videos and photos with family members. “For these seniors, that’s like getting postcards”, she says.

As technology becomes easier, engagement amongst seniors is rising: a recent survey by digital platform Senior Planet found a surprising demand for digital resources, from gaming programs to telemedicine to ride-sharing apps, virtual fitness classes, even online dating.

In China, seniors are using new tech to find comfort and companionship. 59-year-old Henan based Zhong Peicheng speaks to his sons in Guangdong every day via WeChat video. For 64-year-old retiree Tang, it’s an opportunity for social networking.

Whenever technology eludes her, she uploads a screenshot to a group online and brainstorms with other retirees. “We have to keep learning if we don’t want to be left behind”, she says. With the help of new, accessible technologies, these digitally smart seniors are striding ahead.