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French elderly care sector looks to mainland China for future expansion

Exhibitors at the Salon des Seniors in Paris, one of Europe's leading events for the elderly healthcare market, were keen to welcome the over-70s to the digital age, while also looking to export French-style healthcare to urbanised China.

Photo: Harley Davidson’s Tri- Glide: an easy rider for the over 60s.
Harley Davidson's Tri- Glide: an easy rider for the over 60s.

Beds that move up and down, voice-controlled smartphones, floors that light up, clothes that boost circulation … this year's Salon des Seniors in Paris, one of Europe's premier expos for the "third age" market, showcased a range of imaginative products and services for older consumers. In truth, there has never been a surer sign that the "silver economy" has been identified as a potential gold mine – both within Europe and in Asia.

According to France's National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies (INSEE), the over-50s now constitute a third (22 million people) of the country's population, with that proportion only expected to grow. The number of over-75s was 5.6 million in 2010 and this is expected to double by 2050.

Within the senior group, there are three distinct market segments – the baby boomers (just reaching retirement age, viewed as "discriminating consumers"); the older generation (many of whom have health issues but want to stay in their own homes); and the less autonomous (those requiring a higher level of care).

The French government is currently focussing on the second group. Last year, in association with ASIPAG (a French senior citizen "trade union"), the government launched the Silver Eco initiative in order to bring together many of the players in the sector, create a recognised label and to promote exports. It is now debating an "autonomy" bill of measures aimed at supporting the elderly still living at home.

Indeed, making life easier for the stay-at-home elderly was a common motif at this year's event. The French manufacturer MMO, for instance, previously best known as a provider of equipment for medical facilities, was launching its Twin2Single bed for home use.

Explaining the customisation required to make it suitable for domestic use, Eric Tilleau, the company's Chairman, said: "We have added a number of design elements in order to hide the medical functions. Most people who have seen demonstrations are surprised when they realise it's actually a medical bed. It has all the usual electrical features but – in something of a rarity in the B2C sector – it also has a high/low function, making it easier to get out of bed in the morning, when your body is cold, and thus reducing the risk of a fall."

Overall, Tilleau expects the Twin2Single to appeal to the 65-85 age group. In terms of cost, it is said to be priced competitively with other high-end electric beds.

Although technically outside the target market, it might still appeal to Jacques Blosseville, a 92-year-old keen to prove that age is no barrier to invention. Four years ago, he found himself in need of a walking aid, so he devised the Walk scooter-bicycle hybrid. Fast forward (slowly) to 2014, and the buzz on the Wellpedy booth was about the Home, a companion device designed for indoors use.

Assessing its appeal for elderly users, Eric Chapeau, Blosseville's business partner, said: "It's very easy to move about in and its four wheels ensure you can't fall. You retain all the mobility in the upper part of your body, allowing you to reach cupboards etcetera. Its adjustable seat height also easily facilitates transfer to a chair, bed or toilet."

Wellpedy, Chapeau's family business is currently diversifying from its car component manufacture business in order to produce the Walk and Home.

Aside from producing more conventional – albeit considerably updated – elderly aids, there was also a considerable emphasis on those products geared to introducing older people to the digital world. One such solution came courtesy of Tikeasy, a Nantes-based specialist in the sector. The company has pioneered the use of specially adapted tactile tablets that focus on the basics of online connectivity – simple email, face-to-face communication and games to play with all the family.

Thierry Corbillé, the designer behind the company's product range, said its average user age is 81, with many of the products bought by younger relatives for use by their parents or even grandparents. The company regularly adds new applications to the Tooti Family – its core product range – the latest being an electronic reader. An English-language version is said to be in the pipeline.

From computers, it is a short, but logical, step to smartphones. In an innovative move for units designed specifically for the visually impaired, Kapsys, a Nice-based telecoms company, has introduced handsets with a unique triple interface.

Aram Hekimian, the company's Chief Executive, believes the handset will benefit both the poor-sighted and the elderly. He said: "It is tactile, but it also has a physical keypad that is suitable for the elderly. It also responds to vocal commands when navigating between menus and entering data. When you are older, tactility may have disadvantages in terms of reactivity – if your hands shake, for example."

Other silver-surfer friendly hardware came courtesy of Doro, a Swedish firm specialising in simplified phones, mobiles and computers. It was in Paris to unveil its first laptop aimed specifically at "digital immigrants". As part of its pan-European strategy, the company has recently opened a dedicated Parisian boutique. Explaining the company's move onto the high street, Marketing Director Caroline Noublanche said: "We want to ensure relatives, who might offer these products as gifts, are definitely aware of them."

Low awareness was a concern, too, for Assystel, an Italian manufacturer of emergency bracelets, complete with a push-button system for calling for assistance. Taking a dim view of the French market, Henri Borie, the company's Marketing Manager, said: "Take-up of this equipment in France is only 15% of the 3.5 million people aged over 80, compared to 70% in the UK."

In response to this, the company has introduced the Mamy Box (Granny box), a gift pack entitling the recipients to the requisite Mamy Kit. This includes a more stylish version of its standard emergency bracelet – complete with a "glossy pink button" – and the option of wearing it as a bracelet to avoid any possible negative associations. Borie said: "Our communication target is actually the sons and daughters."

An alternative safety solution was on offer from Cash2s, an Italian retail video surveillance company looking to branch out into the senior sector. It was attending the expo to promote the VAC system, its patented fall-detection technology available in professional and private-use versions.

Photo: Home: indoor cycling.
Home: indoor cycling.
Photo: Assytel’s emergency bracelet.
Assytel's emergency bracelet.

Summarising the benefits of the system, Alain Bessou , the company's General Manager, said: "We saw an opportunity when a friend with a nursing home told us about an elderly person who had fallen and been left all night on the floor. We then developed VAC and did a huge amount of testing to get it close to zero faults.

"It works by having sensors in each room, then, if someone falls, the system sends an image to everyone on their network. They can monitor the situation and even speak to the person directly."

VAC is one of many state-of-the-art technologies underpinning a new concept created by GDP Vendôme, a French nursing home operator. Introducing its wider strategy, Mohamed Bouchamma, the company's Product Development Director, said: "In five to six years, nursing homes will only be for end-of-life and Alzheimer's. Villa Sully, our new concept, is the alternative.

"Its intelligent apartments have been conceived in conjunction with geriatricians and ergotherapists in order to provide an environment that adapts to a person's pathology and level of dependence. The technology is invisible, it's not stigmatising."

Villa Sully's facilities range from motorised sliding doors to kitchens with variable-height units, and automatic bed-to-bathroom floor lighting at night. A malnutrition sensor inside the fridge and a weight-detection sensor under the mattress can send critical information to a doctor or relative. The unit also has access to a medical centre.

Bouchamma said: "We are opening the first Villa Sully this summer. It's more expensive than a normal flat, but 20% cheaper than a nursing home."

The lack of opportunities for organic growth in France has prompted Colisée, France's fifth largest nursing home operator to turn to the overseas market. Next month, the company will open a 200-bed nursing home in Guangzhou, shortly followed by additional residences in Shenzhen, Kunming and Chengdu.

Asked why China was the target country, Pascal Brunelet, the company's Deputy General Manager said: "In two years, there will be more than 200 million people aged over 65 in China. The consequences of the one-child policy and an unbelievable rate of urbanisation means people can no longer take care of their parents or grandparents in the traditional fashion."

The company is currently keen to adapt its French know-how to specific Chinese needs. This will see its "therapeutic architecture" be combined with feng shui elements. Guests will also have their own rooms, but will enjoy ample opportunities to socialise.

This social element is seen as central to the success of serviced retirement flats, a category well-represented at the Salon this year. Geared towards the over-75s, these developments usually include restaurant facilities, while also offering multiple activities in a clubhouse-style environment.

La Girandière, the first operator in France to obtain the NF certificate for quality of service, has 13 such residences and is planning to open 10 additional homes every year. Asserting that its high-end approach has been the key to its success, Olivier Le Gall, the company's Marketing Director, said: "People increasingly make an active decision to come and live in our homes on account of their conviviality and comfort. We are now looking to further enhance the experience by installing swimming pools, billiards and so on."

Aside from places to live, numerous exhibitors at the Salon were also seeking to lure the over-50s further afield. This is perhaps understandable given that senior citizens spend 30% more on holidays than the average person.

Sylvie Kannengiesser, Communications Manager of specialist tour operator Rive Gauche, believed there was now a younger-minded group of retirees who were seeking "comfort, taxi pick-ups and all-inclusive holidays". With this in mind, in addition to its luxury packages, the company has developed more affordable online offers for the baby boomer generation, who are used to comparing prices and who want to be more adventurous.

Also hoping to appeal to the imaginations of such adventure-loving retirees was Harley Davidson. The high-end motorcycle brand was attending the Salon to promote its three-wheeled Tri Glide Ultra Classic. The bike has recently been approved for the European market and is said to offer clear advantages for the mature rider. "We're showing people that they can carry on dreaming," said Customer Services Manager Jean-Marc Bois.

For those feeling more adventurous still, L'Hirondelle, a French holiday operator, organises "seasonal migration" for retirees. Explaining the concept, Guillaume Desach?, the company's co-founder, said: "Our idea is that people go away for the winter, like the swallow ["hirondelle" – in French]. We arrange furnished rental accommodation to suit the customer's budget, and our agents provide assistance at the destination. We can even take care of pets and post."

For those more inclined to get comfortable at home, Backjoy, a US-based posture specialist was doing a healthy trade in its correctional seats. Pascal Morin, the company's French distributor, said: "We've been surprised at just how well the product works with older people.

"Backjoy combines personal wellness with an innovative and colourful design, so it doesn't look too medical. Perhaps surprisingly, though, the take-up of bright or sober colours is pretty much the same across all ages."

An unexpected source of physical wellbeing was a new clothing collection on show from be & vie, a recent French start-up. Borrowing technology previously used in the high-level sports arena, the range incorporates crushed ceramic rock in a special lining to capture and concentrate infrared heat.

Explaining the benefits, company co-founder Maurice Boivin said: "Infrared can improve blood circulation, meaning you get less tired and recover more quickly from activity. It's also good for balance, for phlebitis and for toning muscle mass."

Tackling health more externally, Pfizer, the US-based pharmaceutical giant, had on offer its Centrum Select 50+ multivitamin and mineral supplement. Identifying the specific needs of the more elderly consumer, Flore Gorge the company's Marketing Manager, said: "The multivitamin market for older people is growing by 10% a year. Our product fills a nutritional gap, as most older people don't always have a well-balanced diet."

There were even products aimed at those not quite at the retirement age. Phytea, a French company specialising in natural solutions, had on offer a product specifically geared towards menopausal women. Virginee Dujoncquoy, a Product Manager with the company, said: "We are aiming to help tackle the problem of hot flushes. We have created an applicator that women can press to the back of the neck or décolleté for an immediate cooling and anti-redness effect. It's very discreet."

Photo: VAC: state-of-the-art in-home fall monitoring.
VAC: state-of-the-art in-home fall monitoring.

The 16th Salon des Seniors took place at the Porte de Versailles in Paris between 3-6 April. It featured 250 exhibitors and attracted a record 49,000 visitors.

Linda Watkins, Special Correspondent, Paris

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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