EU1b. in research funds should help Europeans age well

By 2020, 25 percent of the EU's population is expected to be over 65. Spending on pensions, health and long-term care is expected to increase by 4-8% of GDP in coming decades, with total expenditures tripling by 2050.

viviane reding 88 298 (photo credit: Courtesy)
viviane reding 88 298
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Responding to the needs of Europe's growing ageing population, the European Commission last week adopted a European Action Plan for "Ageing Well in the Information Society." This Action Plan is accompanied by a new joint European research program raising to over EU1 billion the research investment on information and communications technologies (ICT) targeted at improving the life of older people at home, in the workplace and in society in general. These new EU initiatives are supposed to contribute to allowing older Europeans to stay active for longer and live independently. "Europe's ageing population is a challenge for our job market and its social and health systems. But it is also an economic and social opportunity. ICT will provide new and more accessible products and services that meet the needs of older people," said Viviane Reding, EU commissioner for the information society and media. "These two initiatives will mobilize digital technologies that will improve the daily lives and social participation of older people and create new opportunities for Europe's industry." By 2020, 25 percent of the EU's population is expected to be over 65. Spending on pensions, health and long-term care is expected to increase by 4-8% of GDP in coming decades, with total expenditures tripling by 2050. However, older Europeans are also important consumers with a combined wealth of over 3000 billion. Europe, like much of the industrialized world, is facing a huge challenge: how to maintain living standards as population age. While diverse measures - political, economic, social and scientific - are being mobilized to prepare for the challenge, one very important field has taken a back seat... until now. With the adoption of the European Action Plan for "Ageing well in the information society," this all looks set to change. Information and communications technology (ICT) can empower older citizens while generating benefits for businesses, the economy and society at large. Treating ageing as a problem and the elderly as a burden on society is out of step with reality. Europeans living longer should be seen as major achievement of European science, health and social programs, not a disadvantage. What's more, the elderly have a great depth of knowledge, experience, resources and - aided by ICT developments - the ability to continue actively contributing to society, the marketplace and the economy. The opportunities are vast. Ageing Well in the Information Society is a flagship initiative of the European Commission to promote an inclusive European information society. It is in integral part of the EU's i2010 initiative - a European Information Society for Growth and Jobs. ICT should increasingly allow older people to stay active and productive for longer, to continue to engage in society with more accessible online services; and to enjoy a healthier and higher quality of life for longer. Nevertheless, the majority of older people do not yet enjoy the benefits of the digital age - low cost communications and online services that could support some of their real needs - since only 10% use the Internet. Severe vision, hearing or dexterity problems, frustrate many older peoples' efforts (21% of the over 50s) to engage in the information society. In response, the commission's Action Plan aims at: overcoming technical and regulatory barriers to market development, through market assessments and by facilitating the exchange of best practice between member states; raising awareness, and building consensus via stake holder cooperation in 2007 and the establishment of a best practice Internet portal, accelerating take-up through, for example, a set of pilot projects and a European award scheme for smart homes and independent living applications; boosting research and innovation by immediately supporting a joint public-private research program dedicated to "ambient assisted living." It aims to foster the emergence of innovative, ICT-based products, services and systems for Europe's ageing population. This Action Plan is designed to create a political and industrial momentum for developing and deploying user- friendly ICT tools and services. It seeks to mainstream the needs of older users of ICT. The EU officials aim for it to support other policy areas in growth and competitiveness, demographic change, employment, health, and equal opportunities - in addressing the challenges of ageing societies. Between now and 2013, the EU and member states, and the private sector are determined to invest more than 1 billion in research and innovation for ageing well: some 600m. in the ambient assisted living program, an expected 400m. in the EU's latest research framework program where the EU plans to invest an overall 9 billion in research on information and communications technologies (ICTs) which is by far the largest single budget item in Europe's 7th research framework program that will run until 2013. The action plan and research program are hoped to enable a better quality of life for elderly people, make significant cost-savings in health and social care possible and create a strong industrial basis for ICT and ageing in Europe. The author is the head of the International Department at Joseph Shem-Tov Law Firm