Kenneth Judd may be 99-years-old, but he is a cycling tour de force.
The almost centenarian last month gained a silver medal in a global cycling competition that had more than 5,000 entrants.
To win second place Mr Judd pedalled 2,348 miles (3,779 km) over 26 days. That’s an average of more than 90 miles per 24 hours, a distance that many of us of a younger age couldn’t cycle in one day, let alone for another 25 in a row.
While he cycled, Mr Judd was able to enjoy quiet country lanes in his native Yorkshire, and the Lake District. Yet he was actually moving on the spot, using a high-tech exercise bike at a care home in Warwickshire.
Now in its fifth year, the worldwide event is called Road Worlds For Seniors. Open to elderly people, and those with dementia, participants cycle on stationary bikes made by Norwegian firm Motitech.
The cycling machines are connected to a laptop or other computer, which in turn is linked to a TV or monitor. So when the user cycles they see themselves moving through the scenery on the screen.
This sort of technology has been available in gyms, and for home cyclists, for a number of years, but Motitech’s Motiview system is aimed specifically at older people and people with dementia.
The idea is that users cycle along to a video of the roads, or streets, near where they lived as child or young adult, so that they get both physical and mental exercise.
They, or their care worker, can also pick from a number of accompanying song playlists compiled by music therapists to also help inspire them to keep peddling.
The Road Worlds For Seniors event is supported by British Cycling, the sport’s governing body in the UK. This year’s competition took place from 6 September to 1 October, the winners were those who cycled the furthest over that time period – the system records their distances.
This was nonagenarian Mr Judd’s second time entering the event. A pilot in World War Two, he came seventh in the 2020 competition (Covid-19 did not stop it), and he has been training on a Motiview bike ever since January for this year’s race.
“I wanted to do better than last year, and so I worked out how many kilometres and hours I’d have to do each day,” he says.
“And I did the cycling when no one else was around, late at night, or early in the morning. The night staff were good at bringing me drinks, although my tea would end up being cold as I focused on cycling.
“You’ve got to concentrate on your speed and how far you’re going. Sometimes I watched Yorkshire, and others – areas of the Lakes.”
Lindy Renaud, a wellbeing coordinator at a care home in London, says that the key factor behind the growing popularity of Motiview is that the senior cyclists are encouraged to remember their childhoods.
“It’s good for their mind, body and soul,” she says. “It sparks happy memories with them saying ‘Oh, I remember that’.”
Although not all older people need to rely on technology, more technological innovation is emerging to help them deal with complex issues such as loneliness, safety and illness, or simply to keep fit.
We live in a world with a large ageing population: by 2050, 16% of the global population will be aged 65 or older, up from the current 9%, according to the United Nations.
At the UK’s National Innovation Centre for Aging (Nica) at Newcastle University, they are currently road-testing Gita, an Italian cargo-carrying robot that a person could use to transport their shopping home from the supermarket.
Knee-high, it moves at up to 6 mph (10km/h), and can hold up to 23kg of items. It uses an artificial intelligence software system, and video cameras, to recognise its owner and follow them around, a few feet behind.
“It’s slightly different to the traditional idea of a robot,” says Nicola Palmarini, director of the Nica. “It doesn’t speak or talk. It’s like a faithful dog, it keeps on following you.
“People stop and start talking to you like it’s a puppy. It’s an ice-breaker. And research shows that with the robot elderly people tend to walk more, as it just follows you and allows you to do things like go shopping.”
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The pandemic saw most of us turn to video calls to keep in touch with family and friends. But even the most tech-savvy of us sometimes struggled to get the Zoom, Skype, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams or similar applications to work.
To make receiving video calls easier for elderly people, Norwegian firm No Isolation makes a stand-alone video screen device, called Komp.
Once set up, signed up relatives of the person – such as children or grandchildren – can video call them on it direct from their mobile phones or computers. As long as the Komp is turned on, it automatically connects to the call after a 10-second countdown. And if the owner isn’t feeling chatty, they can simply turn off the machine via its sole button.
The machine also automatically displays photos that relatives send.
Trish Greenhalgh, a professor of primary care health sciences at the University of Oxford, bought a Komp for her mother-in-law about three years ago. “She lives on her own in London and her family wanted to keep in touch with her,” says Ms Greenhalgh.
“All she has to do is turn it on, and she sees photos of grandchildren and anything we want to put up there. There’s no touch screen or passwords to remember.”
However, Ms Greenhalgh adds that the machine would be more beneficial if it connected to the user’s doctor in the future. And while receiving video calls on a Komp requires no effort, to make one you have to use the connected mobile phone app.
Caroline Abrahams, charity director at charity Age UK, cautions that while technology can indeed help elderly people, it should not be seen as a substitute for human contact and assistance.
“Even the best tech is rarely a substitute for the help and support that most older people value and need from kind and committed people,” she says. “As tech becomes more sophisticated we can expect its role to increase, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves that it can substitute for the human touch, or a chat and a laugh with another human being.”
Back at his Warwickshire care home, Mr Judd is now taking a break from cycling, at least for the winter.
“I won’t look at the bikes again for now,” he says. “But I shall consider taking it up again in early spring and having another go in next year’s competition.”
Additional reporting by New Tech Economy series editor Will Smale.