BADALONA, SPAIN – At first, when she retired from a lifelong career in nursing in her native Spain, Joanna Perez Osuna struggled with a lack of purpose. Then she found solace in a virtual world populated by “Pikachus,” “Weedles” and “Smeargles.”
Perez started playing Pokemon Go, the augmented-reality game that encourages players to travel around looking through their mobile phone cameras so they can collect animated creatures that “appear” in front of them.
Now the 75-year-old spends up to six hours a day walking the streets of Badalona, a quiet Spanish town to the north of Barcelona, chasing after digital ghosts, dragons and monsters.
“I don’t want to be stuck at home all afternoon watching television. I also don’t want to sit around all day reflecting with people my age — I want to do something in the fresh air,” Perez said with a chuckle.
As people live longer, the World Health Organization predicts that 1 in 5 — or 2 billion people — will be 60 or older by 2050, double the number in 2015.
And aging populations worldwide are already putting pressure on health care, infrastructure, housing and other social services.
Finding surprising ways to keep older people mentally and physically healthy is a point of pride for Badalona, one of nearly 80 cities, towns and regions taking part in this year’s European Innovation Partnership on Active and Healthy Ageing.
Launched by the European Commission in 2012, the partnership aims to improve the health and quality of life of older citizens, such as those with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
The initiative wants to add two years to the average healthy lifespan of European Union citizens by 2020 — the number currently stands at about 64 years.
Anca Paduraru, the European Commission’s spokeswoman for public health projects, said countries should see aging as “an opportunity to innovate” and modernize health systems.
Perez, who was introduced to Pokemon Go by her daughter after it first launched three years ago, said she walks between 12 and 15 km (7 to 9 miles) every day playing the game.
“Catching” the monsters is a good way of meeting people and getting to know Badalona better, she explained, because it takes her to neighborhoods she would not normally visit. She is also motivated by the health benefits of playing the game, which has helped her recover from skin cancer.
“One of the main reasons I play is to not put on too much weight — that’s important,” she said.
“Pokemon Go” can be “a good way of connecting people with others so they are less isolated,” said Carlos Sanchez, a social worker who helps people deal with loneliness and other difficulties in Badalona.
“It’s most useful for people that don’t have anything to fill their time, like if they don’t have grandchildren to pick up from school,” he stressed, adding that he recommends the game to some of his clients.
Jordi Piera Jimenez, chief information and R&D officer at public health care provider Badalona Care Services, agreed, adding that “more and more people are coming to live in cities and isolation is becoming a huge problem.”
Almost 70 percent of the world’s population is expected to be living in urban areas by 2050, according to the United Nations.
“Isolation and a feeling of loneliness are problems that in rural areas are less common, because people are more resilient and used to taking care of each other. … Cities tend to be more impersonal,” Piera lamented.
Spotting unmet demand, technology and toy companies are marketing devices such as robotic pets, like the therapeutic seal from Japanese company Paro that remembers how it has been stroked and responds to certain words.
There are also glasses from French firm Abeye that can call for help when they detect the wearer has taken a fall, and artificial intelligence products like ElliQ, which initiates conversation to keep older people company.
In Badalona, at least 300 residents aged 65 and over are using or have used Pokemon Go, Piera said.
Badalona — which, unlike most cities, owns its public health care system — is promoting and testing the use of digital health care solutions but is held back by funding issues, said Piera.
“We have some digital solutions deployed but not at the scale that we want to and not at the scale that we have tried,” he said.
“We have tested a lot of things and we know that they work, but making them real is very hard … the government is not moving very fast.”
Those solutions have so far included MasterMind, a computerized cognitive behavioral therapy program that helps deal with depression, and the Do Change initiative, which monitors lifestyle changes to help users avoid cardiac problems, said Piera.
A spokesman for the Ministry of Health, Social Services and Equality did not respond to a request for comment.
Piera predicts the use of digital technology to help aging populations will be more common once the cost of new technology comes down.
But he stressed there is also the need for a change of mentality among the general public, which can be suspicious of new health care technology — especially if it gives patients more responsibility for their own treatment and care.
“We are not used to taking care of ourselves,” he said. “We like doctors and nurses to come and take care of us.”
Perez, the retired nurse, understands that playing Pokemon Go every day helps keep her mind active and her body fit.
“Mentally it’s also good. As I don’t go to work anymore, I like to keep my mind working with an activity. It’s both physical and mental,” she said.
In the not-too-distant future, Perez and her friends could be walking robotic dogs around Badalona or attending a virtual therapy session on their mobile headsets before bed — but for now, hunting down a Pikachu will have to do.