Can These Elderly-Care Robots Make a Difference in Geriatrics?
Thanks to better diagnostic tools, better therapies, better living conditions, and better medical technology, humans are living longer than they ever have. However, caring for our ageing population is expected to become more and more of a challenge. Older individuals often require some sort of physical or emotional assistance, even if it’s just regular companionship, and there are concerns about whether or not there will be enough qualified professionals to fill these roles.
Because of our advancements in technology, many people believe it makes sense to replace humans with robotics for the care of senior citizens, the so called elderly-care Robots. Start ups with the aim of providing tech-based solutions for the elderly are popping up all over. But is using technology to help care for our seniors the right move? That all depends on your perspective.
A Legitimate Shortage Solution
It’s no secret that there’s a worldwide shortage of healthcare workers. According to the World Health Organisation, the world needs more than seven million more people in the healthcare workforce today to meet the demand. And, this shortage is only expected to get worse: the projected workforce shortage will be almost 13 million people by 2035.
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These numbers don’t reflect only the shortage in senior care — this is for the entire sector. It’s reasonable to expect that the shortage for senior care workers will be especially dire, since workers will be triaged to where they are needed most: working with especially sick patients, researching cures to serious health threats, and helping out in locations hit by serious epidemics. By developing technology-based solutions to this healthcare crisis, we stand a better chance of providing better care to more people as they age.
Programming Bedside Manner
Still, as many of us know firsthand, a piece of digital technology, no matter how advanced it may be, is never a replacement for the human element. It’s the bedside manner that great doctors and nurses display, the emotional je ne sais quoi that elevates the healthcare experience for all patients. Human care is never a matter of input and output, and there are legitimate concerns about whether or not healthcare devices will be able to contribute to patients’ emotional well being. After all, a device cannot care for a patient at the same emotional level as a human caregiver, contributing to an already-present loneliness factor among the elderly.
A big challenge for the senior tech industry as it expands and forges ahead is to create devices that are able to provide an acceptable level of empathy. While AI technology has come a long way (Siri, Cortana, Alexa, we see you), and while it can certainly be used in devices aimed at ageing citizens, the level of snark will need to be dialed down, and the level of warmth and emotional responsiveness will probably need to be improved.
Forging Ahead – Elderly-Care Robots
Despite the obvious challenges associated with tech-based healthcare for the ageing, there are a handful of companies and products already in existence. Here are some of them:
1. Accompany – Care-O-bot 3
An acronym of sorts for Acceptable Robotics Companions for Ageing Years, Accompany is a British and European company that develops and creates assistive technology for the elderly. Their current Elderly-Care Robot in development is the Care-O-bot 3, an automaton that can perform basic tasks for its master, such as deliver a requested item or provide walking assistance.
It also has a screen to provide entertainment options. However, what makes the Care-O-bot 3 extraordinary is its ability to display emotion and empathy. It’s still a work in progress, and in its current iteration, the device costs £180,000. However, it’s expected that within a decade, a future version of the Caro-O-bot will be commercially viable and find a place in the senior care sector.
2. Robear by Riken
If Hello Kitty designed an elder-care robot, it would look like Robear. Created by Riken, a research institute based in Japan, this sturdy white automaton is actually strong enough to lift and move patients in a gentle yet effective manner. It’s agile in its movements and great for assisting seniors as they attempt to be mobile. Oh, and it has a ridiculously cute cartoon bear face. There’s no programmed empathy (not yet, anyway), but the cheery smiling face goes a long way in establishing a trusting relationship between bot and patient.
It also stands to reason that Japanese companies and institutions are getting involved in this field, as Japan has a lot at stake. Over one quarter of its population is over the age of 65; this is more than twice the worldwide average.
Yes, the name is eerily reminiscent of the late 1980s silver screen cyborg, but Robocoach is actually a fitness robot designed to help elderly citizens stay limber. It was made by engineering students in Singapore, and it’s being used in senior centres to lead exercise and agility classes. While exercise may be a less intimate use of robots for senior healthcare, the proactive nature of exercise for better overall health is an increasingly important part of the sector.
While the involvement of the world’s largest tech company is very preliminary right now, Apple has got its proverbial foot in the door of the elder care sector. In a partnership with IBM and the Japan Post Group, Apple is formulating a plan to get iPads pre-loaded with relevant communication, convenience, and health apps in the hands of Japan’s elderly.
While on the surface it may seem like an easy way for Apple to sell a slew of new iPads, the initiative is actually aimed at improving the overall quality of life for this population. In an article in The New York Times this past April, Apple CEO Tim Cook was quoted as saying, “We want to change how people work and live. We don’t just want to sell stuff.” If this move is successful at improving the lives of Japan’s ageing citizens, it could be rolled out in other countries as well.
But Will it Take Off?
Wanting to help the elderly by using technology is a noble pursuit, but on a practical level, one has to wonder if it will really work. Remember, the target demographic for these efforts is the generation that is often the butt of tech-related jokes. They certainly did not grow up with technology, and many of these individuals have resisted using computers and smartphones. Those who do use them often need lots of help and get frustrated easily. So, the prospect of being given an iPad or being cared for by a robot companion may be unsettling at best.
Of course, when the members of the current millennial generation are octogenarians, they will probably take very well to having robot-like devices care for them; it will make sense and feel natural. But is tech the solution to the elder care (and healthcare) shortage? Will this generation of seniors welcome (to borrow a phrase) their new robot overlords? Or is this just another batch of newfangled nonsense?
A Solution, or a New Problem?
In short, technology could provide a viable solution to the care of our planet’s ageing population, especially given the impending shortage of healthcare workers. But there’s still the nagging issue of human connection, or the lack thereof, and the loneliness that is likely to accompany the move to tech-based caregivers.
Ultimately, it’s not easy to program emotion and empathy into a robot. We don’t want our elders to end up feeling like Sam Rockwell in Moon, trapped in a remote outpost (OK, less remote than what Rockwell has to deal with, but still solitary) with nothing but a faceless robot to talk to. And it’s unlikely that any seniors will find themselves in a Mystery Science Theater scenario, making wisecracks at bad TV programs with their robot friends.
But the big questions are there: how will we use technology to care for our ageing population, and how will they react to it? It all remains to be seen.