Will robotic assistants be the future of elder care?
While high tech isn’t something we normally associate with the aged, robotics and artificial intelligence are slowly making inroads in elderly care.
Take, for instance, Hasbro’s Joy for All companion pets, robotic pets “designed to bring comfort, companionship and fun to elder loved ones,” according to Hasbro. Several nursing homes have bought the robots and reported some success with them with dementia patients. Hasbro says it marketed the pets to seniors after discovering with the previous, children’s version, that at least 15% of online reviewers were about the pets being used with seniors not children.
A study in a San Francisco care center used PARO, a robotic baby seal intended to help calm stress and provide comfort to dementia patients. The initial findings suggest that engaging with the pet robot reduced pacing and anxiety, and helped calm older residents.
While much research still needs to be done, other early studies also suggest that robotic pets can offer some of the same benefits to senior adults real pets do – and without the need for food and the responsibility of care.
In the New York Times Magazine, Jeremy D. Larson wrote of watching his grandmother with dementia interact with a Hasbro cat. He ended up writing “Letter of Recommendation: Hasbro Joy for All,” which read in part:
“(W)hen my grandmother ran her hand along Kitty’s faux fur, and I saw that smile overtake her face, something changed … She was finally there with me, laughing, enjoying herself; the grandmother I hadn’t seen in years had arrived in order to care for the robot cat. Her happiness filled the room, and I stood in awe, subordinate to synthetic love.”
Touch the pet’s cheek and it will nuzzle your hand; pet it and it will purr. The robots will even roll on their backs so they can get their bellies rubbed. They may be a far cry from the real thing, but they produce some of the same effects. Said one reviewer on Hasbro’s site, “When [my mom] started petting that cat, [she] said that it felt like love. That just touched my heart, because she's so full of love, and it's nice that she can have some in her life.”
The Courville Communities are currently looking into adding these robotic pets to our centers so they'll be available to anyone who can benefit from them.
In response to the growing population of elderly and the shrinking pool of caregivers, researchers have been at work developing robots that can do more than provide comfort – they can actually assist seniors in their daily activities and help keep them safe.
Japan is leading the development of Carebots, robots specifically designed to assist elderly people. In fact the government there has allocated a third of its budget to the development of Carebots, for physical assistance and service.
Not all robots are humanoid (resembling a human being); some are mechanical devices, others look like small appliances. But they all have one thing in common: making caregiving easier for the elderly – and in many cases, keeping seniors independent longer.
Some examples of the latest technology (some still under development):
- Asimo (Japan)
In the future Honda's robot could perform tasks such as fetching food or turning off the lights.
- Resyone (Japan)
This device transforms from a bed to an electric wheelchair, requiring less human labor.
- Robear (Japan)
Moving seniors from the bed to a wheelchair is the function of Robear.
- GiraffPlus (Sweden)
GiraffPlus is a “telepresence robot” that monitors blood pressure and other health metrics. It has a screen to
facilitate virtual doctor and family visits.
- Mera (US)
IBM’s Multi-Purpose Eldercare Robot Assistant will use face analysis to monitor heart rate and breathing. It can
determine if a senior has fallen, and inform the appropriate caregivers, and answer health-related questions.
- iPal (US)
Unveiled at the Consumer Electronics Show in January, the iPal Companion Robot could help
seniors with medication compliance medical monitoring, security, and it provides companionship.
- ElliQ (Israel)
ElliQ could connect the elderly with online games, social media, and video chats, and even suggests,
and connects, older adults to digital content. It helps to stave off loneliness by keeping seniors
engaged and in touch with the outside world.
- Milo (France)
Milo was part of a campaign to place robots in nursing homes across France, with the goal of
keeping the elderly in contact with family to help keep them mentally stimulated to improve long-term health.
Concerns about Robotics
While many of these robotic assistants are still under development, given the rapid advances in technology such devices will be common in the near future. While there are some real benefits, there are also many concerns about their use, including ethical and privacy issues.
Some people are concerned robotic assistants will make seniors more isolated, rather than less. And certainly, a robotic touch can’t replace human touch. But is it possible these devices can help ease some of the burden of caregiving, preventing caregiver burnout and allowing caregivers to spend more time on the kind of interactions with elderly loved ones and patients that really matter – engagement, companionship, and love. What do you think? Let us know in the comments!
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