Tackling ageing population in Spain

Written by Alex Roth, Embassy of Switzerland to Spain and Andorra

We are not getting any younger – and neither are our societies. In some countries this tendency is particularly accentuated: in Spain for instance. While many of its coastal towns have become well known retirement havens for Northern Europe’s elderly, Spanish society in general is ageing as well. And it is doing so to the extent that the number of people aged over 65 has doubled in the space of less than 30 years.

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The ageing process resulting from ever increasing life spans has been very rapid. Furthermore, the process has been intensified through Spain’s low fertility rate over the past few decades. In 2015, the country’s fertility rate was 1.3 children per woman and was therefore lower than in Switzerland (1.5). The United Nations even predict that Spain will be the world’s oldest country in 2050, with 40 percent of its population aged over 60.

How is Spain trying to tackle this challenge? Are researchers turning their attention to questions related to an ageing society? And what initiatives have been launched to improve elderly people’s lives?

The need for innovation and for coming up with new solutions to improve the lives of our ageing populations has been recognized by Spanish research and development institutions. According to the Foundation of the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) research and development on ageing in Spain looks at practically all the factors and areas involved. The degree of coverage in these diverse fields varies though. The bulk of publications are in the field of gerontology and geriatrics, disciplines that have grown substantially in the last three decades.

There is also a growing awareness of the importance of applying Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) and the major contribution they can make to improve quality of life in ageing populations.

The focus in Spain, according to CSIC, is on improving various dimensions of care for the elderly: the model of care for the dependent elderly, techniques to improve care delivery, and new features of how care is organized. However, it has to be noted, that there have been few attempts at transdisciplinary research approaches. In other words, the majority of research focuses on specific aspects of ageing, rather than taking a holistic view of the phenomenon.

There are, however, initiatives that aim at bringing together partners from various fields of society in order to develop innovations and solutions that assist the elderlies in their everyday lives. One such initiative is the cluster SIVI (Innovative Solutions for Independent Living), located in Valladolid, the capital of the north-western region of Castile and Léon.

Castile and León is amongst the largest regions in Europe, the most depopulated and overaged in Spain and the third most overaged in the European Union. In 2014 almost one in every four residents of the region were aged over 65. This makes the SIVI cluster a vital instrument for confronting a number of social challenges in the area of independent living as well as active and healthy ageing in the region.

The SIVI cluster, founded in 2013, is an innovative strategic group of synergic nature, made up of institutions representing the different sectors of society and public life. It is active in the domain of integrated care service provision to people in dependency situations as well as to their families and care provision surrounding:

  • Public administration
  • Technology centers and universities
  • Technology-based companies
  • Service providers and organizations representing users.

The main goal pursued by the SIVI cluster is to enhance the quantity and quality of assistive products and services delivered, thus merging social services with healthcare provision, since the border between them is often diluted. The main tools promoted by the SIVI cluster in this quest are research and innovation. It does so through encouraging and enhancing cooperation between sectors, whereby promoting synergies beyond the members’ individual resources.

This essentially means that members have a pool of 47 organizations representing regional businesses, regional universities, technology and research centers, healthcare and social service providers as well as public administrations, with which they can exchange information and cooperate with. Thereby they reinforce competitiveness within the field of innovation and create strategic strengths in the long term.

Therefore, a technology company that has developed a product or software in collaboration with a university could test their new product in a home for the elderly for instance. The test will provide the company with valuable feedback from the users about how the product can be improved, as Cristina González Delgado of the SIVI cluster explains. She names the example of REREREVI as paradigmatic ­­- an app that was developed out of the necessity to create tools that in an easy and attractive manner allow the rehabilitation of elderly patients with cardiac pathologies.

For the creation and testing of this app, the SIVI cluster brought together the Institute of Technology of Castile and Léon (ITCL), which was responsible for the development of the app in terms of programming and design, the Department of Communications and Telematics of the University of Valladolid, that was detecting future users’ needs, and an elderly people’s home, where the app was first tested and where the developers received their first feedback on how the app is working and what can be improved in the future.

The app is targeted at people working with and helping elderly people, as the app is a tool that aims at increasing the possibility of repetitions of exercises and thereby improving the motor and functional skills; motivating the patient while simultaneously giving the care takers a qualitative and quantitative feedback on how the rehabilitation is evolving. The goal of the partners involved in the development of this app was to design and create a user-friendly, intuitive and low-cost tool. The Spanish Ministry of Industry, Energy and Tourism encouraged this initiative through financial support.

Thus, the need for research and development in questions related to ageing societies have been recognized by research institutions, technology companies, and also the Spanish authorities, especially as it is a particularly pressing issue in Spain that ought to be tackled adequately. The SIVI cluster demonstrates this nicely. Nevertheless, one should keep in mind that the expenditures for research and development in Spain have been in decline since 2009.

It will be decisive whether this tendency can turned around with the newly elected Parliament and the soon-to-be new Government. However, no matter what the constellation of this future Government is, the ageing population will continue to be a trend of major importance in Spanish society. And the need for ever more innovative solutions will not disappear.

Link to the Spanish National Research Council’s blog on Ageing:

The Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) of the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness has created a blog on topic of Ageing.

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