The relationships between people are in three concentric circles: the outer ring is acquaintances, the inner circle is family and friends, and the core is parents and children. For many Asians, blood relations are often the most important, especially for those who are ready to enjoy their later years and inevitably want to have their children by their side.
According to the “Report of the Senior Citizen Condition Survey” published by the Taiwanese Ministry of Health and Welfare in 2013, as many as 65.7% of people aged 65 years or older wanted to “live with their children”, while those who wanted to “live with their spouse” dropped to 16%, and “living with relatives and friends” and “staying at an institution” were the preferences of fewer than 10%.
However, there is always a significant gap between the ideal and the reality. According to the same survey, the proportions of those “living alone” and “living with spouse only” have actually increased year by year, and were at 11.1% and 20.6% respectively in 2013, while the percentage of “two generation households” and “three generation households” dropped to 25.8% and 37.5% respectively.
In fact, instead of Taiwanese children becoming less filial, this phenomenon can be attributed to them now needing to go to faraway places to find employment due to fierce competition in the industrial and commercial sectors. If elderly people do not seek new social relations, loneliness will become the biggest threat to their health.
Using the technology most familiar to old people – the TV. By pressing their remote control, they can see their children and grandchildren.
Taiwanese people have never been accustomed to direct expressions of their emotions, so to understand the feelings of the elderly is not an easy task. On the eve of Mother’s Day, co-founder Gu Weiyang was having trouble choosing a gift for his grandmother. When he finally asked her what she wanted, he could not have anticipated her unhesitating response: “I just want to see you more.”
It suddenly dawned on Gu Weiyang that since he went away to study, he only returned home once every two months – no wonder his grandmother’s answer was so affectionate. But he still could not immediately return home to spend time with her, and no matter how hard he tried, he could not teach her to use Skype, Line and other video software.
Later, when he started volunteering at an aged care home, he encountered the same situation: the fingers of some of the elderly people were bent, some repeatedly asked the same questions, some resisted the idea of using electronic devices as soon as they laid eyes on them. Seemingly convenient technology was extremely difficult to master for some elderly people.
But how strange that when it came to a TV and remote control, the experience was much smoother. Then again, isn’t it the case that the most common leisure activity for elderly people at home is watching TV?
Gu Weiyang immediately searched out some partners to design a set top box. Once it was completed, they went to customers’ houses to install it and set shortcut keys, such as “1” for daughter and “2” for son. After installation, the customer needed only to change channels by pressing the remote control number keys to connect via video with his or her loved ones. In turn, the children could also make an instant phone call or camera video call to the TV so that their parents or grandparents could see them.
Technology originates from human nature, so the Mabow team diligently went to an aged care home to quietly observe the user habits. “I saw that most of the remote controls were covered with a layer of dust and that only a few keys were shiny, meaning that they only used a few buttons.” They also asked people to draw their ideal remote control style, which turned out to be simple and neat. Through bingo, quizzes and other activities, they tested the level of pressure that the elderly participants could apply through their fingers, and discovered that the inflexibility of their fingers made it more likely they would press the same buttons again and again.
Based on this information, Mabow designed a remote control with a simple interface and low press sensitivity.
Beyond hardware, playing “golden grandchildren” to care for the elderly
In order to reduce the digital divide, Mabow racked its brains for how to continue to improve its products. In the fourth generation remote control, it included a “?” key so that users could immediately access the customer service centre whenever they encountered problems.
“As a result, it started to ring off the hook!” Gu Weiyang found that most of the calls were not because of problems, but instead to chat. Those elderly people who could not always get in touch with their children would call to chat all the time. Apparently, the set top box alone could not combat loneliness.
Therefore, in addition to engineers, Mabow found even more volunteers who studied sociology and nursing and who had served as volunteers helping elderly people for many years. It also recruited staff who were familiar with Taiwanese or Hakka, and temporary stand-in “golden grandchildren” who could chat with elderly people.
After deciding a time once or twice a week to gossip or help with life reminders for 10 to 20 minutes, a summary of the conversation would then be sent to the children via a phone app in order to facilitate their understanding of their parent’s or grandparent’s situation, as well as to help them find something to talk about with their loved one.
In addition, as many people do not know much about the experiences of their parents or grandparents in the first half of their life, Mabow records the stories of the elderly as part of the caring process before supplementing them with illustrations to turn their experiences into an illustrated book.
It would be wrong to think that all this is just about talking. In fact, chatting is also a science, such that Mabow trains its employees in listening, complimenting, healing, sharing, using empathy, and other skills, as well as in actively obtaining the trust of the elderly. Gu Weiyang remembers someone with three daughters who had all married overseas once told him many things that he would not personally say to his own daughters. In addition to feeling extremely trusted, Gu Weiyang also privately reminded the overseas daughters to care for their parents.
“We do not intend to replace the role of children, but to provide a tool that can make for a better parent-child relationship.” Gu Weiyang has said that in the future, more visits, household chores, transport, food delivery, shopping and internet services will be integrated for the benefit of the elderly. Furthermore, people with mental and physical disabilities will be introduced as virtual “golden grandchildren” to allow love to flow between diverse people.