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As a GP, I'm happy FaceApp is making us all think about old age - for once ǀ View

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FaceApp has taken the world by storm in the last week, giving users the chance to see themselves age through its algorithm. 12.7 million people - more than the population of London - downloaded it in one seven-day period.

Although the Russian app has become known for its virality as well as its privacy issues (it demands “perpetual, irrevocable access” to users’ photos), the more interesting lesson of our FaceApp fling is what it tells us about our society - and our future lives.

It turns out we are more interested in ageing than we realised. The irresistible temptation of seeing one’s future unveiled digitally is so great that it offsets fears around any loss of privacy.

I’m surprised by this. Most younger people are in denial about old age, doing almost nothing to prepare for it. We spend our 20s socialising, and our 30s and 40s working. We rarely have a chance to plan for the future, with increasing time and financial pressures. Those pressures bring sacrifices that we may not always want to make: we can no longer afford to spend the time or the money needed to look after our elderly parents.

Elderly patients come to see me with no particular ailment, no clear medical issue. After a few minutes of the consultation, I understand why: they’re not sick and often they don’t feel sick. They just need someone - anyone - to talk to.
Dr Sayyada Mawji
GP and volunteer for the charity Who Is Hussain

I’m disappointed that older people are becoming increasingly isolated and lonely in Britain. Whereas in Asia, the Middle East or even closer to home in Europe, we often see three generations of the same family dining together - or even living together - here in the UK it is rare. Britain has a well-developed culture around bringing society together in terms of ethnicities, religions and even class. Generational divisions, by contrast, are ingrained in the way we now live.

As a GP, I can see the loneliness epidemic developing. Elderly patients come to see me with no particular ailment, no clear medical issue. After a few minutes of the consultation, I understand why: they’re not sick and often they don’t feel sick. They just need someone - anyone - to talk to.

Even if they do not necessarily manifest as a specific mental or physical illness, these challenges are serious. In an already overstretched National Health Service, which is largely set up to assist with acute or chronic health conditions, there is a new health crisis emerging; the loneliness of an ageing population.

Although loneliness has no medical classification, the health effects are real. The result of loneliness and isolation can be as harmful to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and is more damaging than obesity. But loneliness does not come with nearly enough health warnings.

So, what next? Since 1980, Brits are living on average ten years longer. At the same time, people are having fewer and fewer children, and they are having them much later in life. The snake of a world class health service is eating its own tail: its care is prolonging people’s lives, but as the ratio of pensioners to working age people increases, there are fewer taxpayers to fund that very health service.

Into this void have stepped NGOs, charities and even lone volunteers. They may not necessarily have specialist training or experience, but more importantly, they have compassion and the simple willingness to give time to listen. This may seem insignificant, but I have seen the effect it can have through volunteering with the charity Who is Hussain.

Delivering community assistance in this way often makes it easier for those who need it to accept the help they need, rather than through direct medical interventions. In a cultural environment where some of our elderly may feel like a burden, this reluctance to ask for help is understandable.

In the long-term, the only way to truly help the oldest members of our society is to go back to the traditional values of inter-generational cooperation, often under the same roof. Ultimately, we will need to evolve towards a culture where elderly care is treated the same as childcare; where employers recognise the obligations of someone with an elderly parent the same way they recognise those of someone with a newborn child.

Carers’ leave is an important piece of legislation, but as long as caring for your elderly parents is seen as a privilege (unlike the obligation of caring for your young children), it will not be enough.

I hope FaceApp’s 13 million new users will reflect on that, whatever their age.

Dr Sayyada Mawji is a GP and volunteer for the charity Who Is Hussain.

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