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82-Year-Old Proves You're Never Too Old to Code

Japanese woman learned coding last year; she's since created a popular app

82-year-old programmer Masako Wakamiya

KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP/Getty Images

When software developers weren't interested in her idea about mobile games for older adults, 82-year-old Masako Wakamiya took matters into her own hands.

En español |  Looking for a new hobby? Maybe it’s time to try coding.

That’s what 82-year-old Masako Wakamiya of Japan decided to do this past year. Since learning to write code in early 2017, the retired bank clerk has gone on to author a free iOS game, Hinadan, specifically geared toward an older, Japanese audience. The app has garnered nearly 5 stars on the Apple App Store, and roughly 53,000 downloads worldwide, since its debut a year ago; Wakamiya is now busy planning future versions in English, Chinese and possibly French.

Just as Facebook and Apple see a median employee age of 29 and 31, respectively, Wakamiya is busy leaving ageist naysayers in the dust. In the months since Apple CEO Tim Cook called Wakamiya the “world’s oldest app developer” in attendance at the tech giant’s annual Worldwide Developers Conference in San Jose, Calif., the Tokyo native’s spotlight has only grown — no small feat in an industry where tech workers over 40 are often deemed “old.” This past year, Japan’s government appointed her to a special committee on aging; and just last month, Wakamiya was a keynote speaker at an event at the United Nations’ New York City headquarters, titled Why Are Digital Skills Critical for Older Persons?

For Wakamiya, the answer comes down to motivation. She’s unflinching in her assessment of the challenges facing Japan’s aging population (age 65 and above), which is projected to grow to 40 percent by 2055.

“Seniors tend to be depressed as they age, because they lose … family members,” said Wakamiya, in a recent interview with the millennial publication Refinery29. “By teaching them to do new things, it gives them an excitement, a motivation — I really like that feeling and being able to share that.”

After noticing a lack of mobile games for older people in her country — in the United States, AARP Games offers many options — Wakamiya asked software developers to step in. Uninterested, they suggested she make a game herself. She took them up on the suggestion. Wakamiya soon bought programming books and learned Apple’s Swift programming language through lessons with a programmer, nearly 200 miles away from her home in Japan's Kanagawa Prefecture, via Facebook Messenger and Skype.

This wasn’t the first time that Wakamiya took on a challenge. She’s been dabbling in the tech field since the age of 60.

Upon retiring from a 43-year career as a bank clerk (she began at age 18), Wakamiya spent long hours caregiving for her then-90-year-old mother. Feeling isolated, and seeking connection with the outside world, Wakamiya bought her first computer, then moved on to a Microsoft PC, and later a Mac and iPhones. In between learning the piano, at age 75, Wakamiya eventually joined a computer club for seniors, Mellow Club, learning to create Excel art along the way. Then, this past year came Wakamiya’s focus on creating the game Hinadan.

The app, based on the annual Japanese doll festival of Hina Matsuri, invites players to arrange 12 ornamental dolls — representing the country’s emperor, family and guests — in a specific order. The game requires in-depth memorization of various arrangements, and has become especially popular with older women, who enjoy playing it with their grandchildren, Wakamiya said.

“They found an app they can actually relate to,” Wakamiya told Refinery29.

As improbable as her story may sound, Wakamiya isn’t a total outlier on the “silver” tech front. In 2015, then-98-year-old Australian grandmother Millie Browne created a word app, “Millie’s Game.” And this past fall, the New York Times reported that roughly 1 million of the 45 million global users of the free online coding platform Codeacademy are 55 or older. Yet Wakamiya’s rise from retired bank clerk to tech celeb still surprises her.

“I didn’t expect such a huge response to my childish app,” Wakamiya recently told Channel NewsAsia. She’s now eager to develop more game apps, adding, “I have many things I want to try.”

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