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The Challenges of ElderCare

When I was in high school, I remember the year when I volunteered at the hospital and witnessed one of the most quietly devastating aspects of how people live and die. I was fifteen and worked in a wing filled with senior citizens who weren't really living, but there to die. There were so many people, strapped to their demerol drips and who watched television all day, and did nothing, just waiting to die. No one ever visited them, and they would walk the aisles of the hospital alone, if they got of bed at all. Then, one by one, they would disappear, and their rooms would become empty and cleaned, only to be filled up by a new incoming patient. Instead of the ideal of living out one's last days on endless holiday and travel, the ideal of saving up for retirement entails a rather grim reality for the majority of people, dying alone in the hospital.

Although in this technological era, people often talk about the longevity of life and how generations in the future will live longer than we do now, I wonder what kind of life they would lead? Growing up, I never knew who my grandparents were and only had photos of them, as the majority had died before I was born, and I only glimpsed my maternal grandmother once when I was five before she, too shortly died.

One of the most underrated sectors in startups is eldercare. So far, there are around 270 startups focused on care for the elderly ranging from virtual companion pets to financial advisors to finding caregivers. As a child of parents who had married when they were older, I had put the thought of their mortality somewhere in the back of my head until my father had fallen ill last year and it became challenging to find the right kind of care he needed. However, I think what is most important is that we cherish the wisdom of the elderly and somehow integrate them into active members of our society. It is so easy to dismiss senior citizens as being irrelevant, especially in our youth-obsessed society.

A scene from the Hollywood movie, The Intern (2015) in which Robert De Niro plays a senior citizen who becomes an intern after retirement at an eCommerce startup founded by Anne Hathaway's character. 

I read recently in a medical journal that ageing should be classified as a "disease"; as the inherent conditions that accompany ageing are part of a wider classification of symptoms in which treatments are available. Two of the things I think are most important regarding eldercare are: exercise and social activity. It would be great if there were a social network to match up elderly people in nearby geographies and schedule visits and walks with a caretaker nearby to assist in any emergencies. However, most of the startups that I have looked into are focused on hiring and finding one-on-one caretakers, not making friends and building a social network. I think what everyone of all ages requires are intellectual stimulation, regular exercise and a purpose in life. However, because for many elderly people, their friends have already passed away and because their family members might be spread wide apart, I think it is very difficult for older people to stay socially active. Also, most elderly people do not want to be put in a rest home or live in the depressing annuals of the hospital. Life shouldn't be about being confined to a hospital bed or a rest home and watching television all day. That is not how I envision people should live. 

Some of the more prominent elderly care startups focused on providing caregivers include Care.com,  HomeHero, Carelinx, the UK's HomeTouch, and the Andreessen Horowitz backed Honor, which had recently announced that they would make contractors full time workers with equity in light of the recent controversy regarding on-demand startups and the classification of workers in other such startups as Uber and HomeJoy.

“I really don’t want two classes of people in our company. Everyone is in it to help the elderly and everyone should succeed if Honor succeeds,” said CEO Seth Sternberg of Honor.

I also think that there might be a great opportunity for the youth of our generation to be matched up with the elderly to record the collective histories of our era. If we could create a comprehensive record of the stories of the elderly by matching them up with young, aspiring novelists and journalists, I think that could be an interesting record for future generations to study. There are so many stories I only know about my own grandparents through my aunt. For instance, I've been told that I'm very similar in temperament to my paternal grandmother and resemble her, although all the photo albums of our family had been lost when they were taken during the Japanese occupation of Korea. In addition, my grandmother was a bit of a hellraiser when she was young, was one of the first in her era to always be dressed in skirtsuits instead of the traditional Korean attire, and lived in Japan with my grandfather when he studied at the University of Waseda; was fluent in Korean, Japanese and Chinese and had made her own secret batches of rice wine in the family barn when there had been a prohibition of alcohol during the 1940s and 1950s.

One of the only remaining photos I have of my grandfather (left) and my depiction of him (right) using acrylic paint on canvas. Most of my family's photo albums and assets were seized at the border when my grandfather and grandmother temporarily fleed to China during the Japanese occupation of Korea during the 1940s.

All these stories become lost when we don't record them, and the personal histories of people I think are more important than what is recorded in history books. In the UK, there has been a long tradition of recording and preserving the personal histories of people, and many registries where people's unpublished manuscripts, diaries and letters have been kept spanning more than 500 years.

In any case, the challenges of eldercare have prompted a new era of thinking about how people live and die and I think it's important that we move away from the hospital and senior home model of previous eras, and towards a more humanistic, social way of caring for our most valuable citizens.

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