After starting to use computers at age 60, retiree Masako Wakamiya became a coder to fill a need for her peers. The series Super Octogenarians profiles seniors who are redefining ageing.
Source: Channel News Asia – CNA Insider By Desmond Ng
FUJISAWA, Japan: There’s something about the slight, white-haired woman that captivates her audience – be they Japanese Girl Scouts, the students in her computer classes, or TEDx talk attendees who give her a standing ovation.
At home, when she works on her code for the smartphone application she developed for the elderly, software programmer Masako Wakamiya focuses intently as she hunches over her laptop.
This 82-year-old retiree is one of the world’s oldest app developers. She is living proof that age is no barrier to computer literacy, coding and – in her words – just “going for it” when she finds something she wants to try.
It was this attitude that inspired her to create her app, after she noticed the dearth of fun apps aimed at active agers, as a Channel NewsAsia series on spunky seniors, Super Octogenarians, finds out. (Watch the episode here.)
And more than 20 years after she learned how to use the computer, this sprightly techie maintains the same philosophy of ageing and lifelong learning.
“There are many people who chase after anti-ageing remedies, but it’s not possible to overtake a setting sun,” she said.
“I feel that it’s better if you refine who you are on the inside than on the outside.”
Mdm Wakamiya is such an inspiration that she was invited to speak at the United Nations earlier in February about the merits of digital technology for the elderly.
She also participated in Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference last year, where she got a special mention from Apple chief executive officer Tim Cook for being the oldest developer at the event.
FROM THE ABACUS, TO EXCEL
Her Hinadan app is a game in which users must decorate and arrange a series of dolls for Hinamatsuri, a traditional Doll’s Day festival celebrated in Japan.
The iPhone app stimulates the use of memory by requiring players to place the Hina dolls correctly.
It signifies how far Mdm Wakamiya – who blogs regularly in Japanese and English (with help from Google Translate), besides giving talks – has come from the time she started working in 1954, when she used an abacus for maths.
She was 18 years old and fresh out of high school when she joined a bank, and worked there as a clerk until the age of 60.
Computer illiterate when she left her job, she bought a computer anyway to make friends and interact online. It took her three months to learn how to use it.
“I was happy to (retire), as it meant I’d have more time to myself,” she said.
“I joined an online club for seniors called Mellow Club. That’s when my world started to expand. By then, we were already moving into the Internet era, and my interest started to grow too. It made me happy.”
One of the things she learnt was the spreadsheet application Excel. As she mastered it, she transitioned from student to teacher, guiding other seniors in the use of computers and the software.
Her efforts hit a roadblock, however, as the elderly “weren’t very fond” of Excel. To make it more user-friendly, she started using the programme to create art instead, and now teaches them that.
“Unlike creating financial reports … Excel art is a form of art, so there’s that sense of excitement,” she said. “When someone’s able to create what they envisioned, they tell me, ‘Sensei (teacher), I was able to do it!’
“The expression that they have at that moment is always so full of happiness.”
TAKING MATTERS INTO HER OWN HANDS
She later asked software developers to create more games for the elderly – but met with a repeated lack of response.
“There was a lack of apps that seniors could enjoy using, especially game apps,” she said.
“(When I) asked younger people to make them, they weren’t always willing. Then they told me, ‘Why not try and make one yourself?’
Not one to back off from a challenge, she bought programming books and consulted with a programmer who lived in a town 300km away, via Facebook Messenger and Skype.
Since Hinadan’s launch last year, it has been viewed about one million times worldwide, with 53,000 downloads. “I didn’t expect such a huge response to my childish app,” she said of the media coverage.
“I (also) met up with people from Apple Japan, and maybe a month later, they invited me to America with them (at Mr Cook’s invitation) … He graciously told me that he was inspired by me.”
When she returned from Silicon Valley, more reporters visited her home and interviewed her. A publisher even asked her if she would write a book, and she became the author of “Your life gets more interesting when you hit 60”.
Mdm Wakamiya said: “Because of the Internet, the world has become smaller. And to have the entire world know that I created something was unthinkable (in the past).”
NEVER TOO OLD
Photographer Hitoshi Iwakiri was excited to meet the octogenarian after reading up and hearing about her.
“I thought she was an amazing senior. I was inspired by her spirit of trying out new things at that age,” he said. “She’s someone who invents and pioneers new things.”
Working with the theme of “never too old”, for the Super Octogenarian programme, he captured her adventurous spirit through her expressions and movements.
The thought of removing her wrinkles or making her “prettier” never crossed his mind.
“The wrinkles of the elderly look like dark mountain ranges, depending on the light,” he described. “But they’re actually age lines, and they reflect their lives so far.”
To him, Mdm Wakamiya does not express her life through her appearance but through “what she wants to do … and her talents”.
Her happiness comes from knowing that others find her app useful and a joy to use – which is why an English version is being developed.
“Seniors who’ve never touched a smartphone in their lives began using and appreciating (one) because of the app. This made me very happy,” she said.
“To those who feel that growing older isn’t a good thing, I want to tell them all the great things about growing older.”