You may have seen the headlines: robots are already playing a central role in providing care and companionship to seniors. It’s not a myth or an idea out of a movie set in the future, it’s a reality as you read this.
At a time when the number of professional caregivers is outpaced by the number of elderly patients in need of assistance, robots are taking on an increasingly important role in helping those caregivers fulfill small tasks, freeing up the caregiver to focus more on aspects of elderly care that require a human being.
That workforce shortage is only expected to get worse over the coming decades, as the baby boom generation lives longer lives and the workforce available to care for them shrinks with their retirement. The question isn’t whether or not robots will play a role, the only question remaining is when will they become commonplace and how extensive of a role they play?
How are Robots Helping Seniors Today?
In Japan, where birth rates are their lowest since before the turn of the 20th century and one quarter of the population is around or beyond the age of retirement, robots have begun to play a major role in senior care. Doing everything from managing medications to helping with cleaning and cooking, robots are proving to be an innovative solution to some senior care issues.
More often than not, robots specialize in specific tasks related to activities of daily living, not drastically different to the first commercially available robot we know as the “Roomba.”
Over the last decade, researchers have been working on robots capable of lifting patients in and out of bed, following recipes and folding laundry. Combined with a future that includes self driving cars, it’s not hard to see a future in which human caregivers are no longer focused on small tasks and can therefore focus on the larger picture of a person’s health.
Care from robots is available around the clock and provide an interface through which caregivers can connect with patients in case of an emergency.
But perhaps most importantly, robots can also play an important role in helping to provide emotional support. A good example is that of Paro, a fur covered robotic seal that was used to comfort patients in a retirement home following the Tohoku earthquake in Japan.
Benefits for Dementia Patients
For patients suffering from dementia, the robots being developed can play a number of roles, from tracking late night activities to providing a soothing presence in times of confusion. And best of all, some robots even become customized as they get to know their users better.
An example of this is ElliQ, which uses machine learning algorithms to figure out user preferences and characteristics and then make activity recommendations based on what the person likes. This sort of tailored response helps the robot seem natural to people and could help ease caregiver tasks.
How Soon Before Robots Care for Seniors?
While seniors, like any other group, are becoming more attuned to accepting and using technology, the fact remains that the presence of robots in the home or even a care facility may take some time for people to become comfortable with.
In the end, it may take a generation or two before people become comfortable with the idea of having robots around and being cared for by them in a significant way. There’s simply no two ways about it, robots are not human beings and therefore, robots are unlikely to be able to create a connection that completely replace human to human interaction.