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Planning Retirement Online

How to be old in the 21st Century


Woolf photo.jpg (4645 bytes)Leading scientist Heinz Wolff shares his revolutionary ideas with    

'Intelligent' homes with technology able to warn elderly occupants of impending hazards and a 'quid pro quo' care trading network are among the subjects being discussed by the world's leading experts on ageing at a debate held by Pfizer UK and the RSA this week.

  • Fifty years ago, when DNA was first discovered, the average age of a European was 29.5 years.

  • Fifty years from now it will be 49.5 years

  • In the UK alone, one in five people will be over 65 by the year 2020

  • Almost half of those will in fact be 75 or over


Professor Heinz Wolff of Brunel University has been doing some hard thinking about the facts above, and he’s asking us to get real about the prospects of an ageing population. He has a couple of revolutionary ideas, but first he asks us to consider three inescapable truths.  

1.      We have to recognise that there is an unbridgeable gap between the resources needed for medical and social care in an ageing population, and the taxes we can raise. There’s no way the two can add up.  

2.      Care professionals, the people who look after the elderly in our society, are held in low esteem and are poorly paid. The traditional carers have been women. With other options open to them they may be less willing to be carers in the future.  

3.      Technology has done little to address the needs of older people. Yes, we have mobile phones, the internet, which can benefit all ages. But what has technology done for older people?  

Professor Wolff, being an inventor, put his mind to finding creative solutions to all three.  

His first big idea was to consider how technology could help people stay longer in their own homes. His answer: sensors built in to the fabric of the home, linked to a computer. The person would have an electronic key so that the sensors could be turned off. And the computer could be linked to a person of choice, a relative, a neighbour, a volunteer, or a care centre. Sensors could be programmed to indicate a variety of things, such as whether the back door is locked at night, the cooker is turned off, the key is removed from the lock. If things are not as they should be, an alert can be sent to the person. Or timed checks can be built in to show that the person is mobile and hasn’t fallen down, with alerts, when necessary, sent to the relative or whoever is linked to the computer. A pilot scheme showed that the project can be discreet, confidential and can increase a sense of security, helping people feel safer at home.  

His second big idea is to consider a new care network, involving volunteers who in return will receive their own future care needs. The volunteers’ contributions could be a form of tax revenue: whatever they give in time and expertise as carers, will be rewarded in terms of tax benefits or free access to training or discounts or future entitlement to care. They could, says Professor Wolff, even accumulate ‘tokens’ or work on a barter system, getting a guarantee of volunteer care for future needs.   

About Heinz Wolff

Prof. Heinz Wolff invented the term Bioengineering in 1954, to describe an activity designed to make the huge advances, which had been made in technology, during the Second World War, available to the biological sciences. He was in turn director of the Division of Biological Engineering at the National Institute for Medical Research and of the Clinical Research Centre, of the Medical Research Council.

In 1983, he founded the Brunel Institute for Bioengineering, which took as its remit first, the development of "Tools for Living", intended to improve the quality of life of elderly people and people with disabilities.

For over 30 years he has been involved with Television and Radio, and in this field is mainly remembered for series such as "The Great Egg Race", "Young Scientists of the Year" and "Great Experiments which Changed the World." He passionately believes in the importance of technical and scientific education for young people and in getting them to think of the social and ethical consequences of advances in these fields. As he reached that certain age, he has collected Honorary Doctorates from the Open University, De Montford, Middlesex and Oxford Brookes, and a Honorary fellowship from The Royal College of Physicians.

He is now Emeritus Professor of Bioengineering at Brunel University but does much the same as he did before, except that he has just developed technology under the Foresight scheme, which will enable old people to live independently in their own homes for longer. he can be contacted on


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Professor Wolff explained his ideas at a lecture sponsored by the Royal Society of Arts and Pfizer, the pharmaceutical company. 

Pfizer explains its commitment to Healthy Ageing…

  • Many of those who have already entered the “third and fourth ages” (defined by the WHO as anyone over 55) are increasingly aware that state healthcare systems across Europe are struggling to cope with growing pressures.   These pressures will continue to increase as populations get older. 

  • More than three quarters of over 55s in Europe believe government budgets need realigning to bolster healthcare systems.  If 60% of all European adults are over 65 by 2050, there will be a powerful lobby for change.

  • As the world’s major discoverer and developer of innovative medicines, Pfizer has a role to play in anticipating and responding to this demographic phenomenon, and in doing so attempt to make ageing a positive experience for all.

  • Pfizer’s portfolio of medicines includes treatments for some of the most serious conditions among over 55s in the UK, such as cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, overactive bladder and arthritis. 

  • One in three medicines prescribed by the NHS is produced by Pfizer.

  • Pfizer has established PHAAF – the Pfizer Healthy Ageing Advocacy Forum – a working group of ageing advocacy groups from across Europe, including Age Concern from the UK.   The Forum has been created to improve the lives of Europe’s over 55s and challenge negative perceptions of ageing in Europe. 

  • Pfizer is also involved in programmes with third parties designed to improve the treatment of conditions that afflict the over 55s.  Examples include working with a multidisciplinary group to help primary care teams deliver optimal treatment for arthritis, and running ‘memory clinics’ across the UK to improve dementia assessment and help address the bottleneck that exists for the conditions treatment.

  • One priority issue that has emerged from initial research is improving access to medical information for all UK residents.  Respondents in our survey on Healthy Ageing told us that the ability to access high quality information about treatments is one of the most important issues for patients.

To this end we will:

  • Set up a facility to provide free health screenings for over 55s and help ensure the early detection of disease.

  • Continue our search to discover innovative medicines and, crucially, cost effective medicines that meet genuine medical needs of patients.

  • Seek to work in partnership with all stakeholders in UK healthcare, including government, to ensure as many people as possible have access to the medicines we make. 



laterlife interest

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