Professor: Robots Are the Future of Elder Care

Sunday, 20 Jul 2014 10:01 AM

By Sandy Fitzgerald

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Many older people need someone who is always there to help them with their everyday tasks, to listen to their stories, and to help them live independently — in other words, a robot caregiver, writes an associate professor of geriatrics in Sunday's New York Times.

"That may sound like an oxymoron," writes the University of California's Louise Aronson in her opinion piece. "In an ideal world, it would be: Each of us would have at least one kind and fully capable human caregiver to meet our physical and emotional needs as we age. But most of us do not live in an ideal world, and a reliable robot may be better than an unreliable or abusive person, or than no one at all."

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Aronson, the author of collection of stories, “A History of the Present Illness," tells of an elderly patient she sees, and notes that while she can write her prescriptions, she can't offer her help for the loneliness and disability that fill her days.

"Like most older adults, she doesn’t want to be 'locked up in one of those homes,' " writes Aronson. "What she needs is someone who is always there, who can help with everyday tasks, who will listen and smile."

Caregiving is low-paid work that is "women's work and immigrants' work," she said, and often it's work that many people won't or can't do. But robot caregivers could change the quality of life for many elderly or disabled patients, Aronson writes.

In Japan, the national health ministry is promoting nursing-care robots to help with lifting and moving patients. In Europe, researchers have developed a social companion robot that encourages healthy eating, exercise, and social activity, she notes.

The United States has been slower to develop such technology, even though there are robots that assist in surgery or deliver supplies in hospitals, Aronson said. But that's still not the same as a machine that could help fulfill the need for a friend and caregiver, an idea that often meets with skepticism or even outrage.

According to a recent Pew Research Center and Smithsonian Magazine survey, a random poll of 1,001 adults shows that 60 percent of them believed technology will lead to better lives for people in the future, reports IEEE Spectrum, a website devoted to engineering and applied sciences.

However, 65 percent of the Americans who were optimistic about technology's positive future impact remained skeptical of robot caregivers, the survey revealed.

Aronson notes that attitudes overseas are different. The Paro robot in Japan looks like a baby seal and responds to human speech and is often used to help elderly people with dementia. Developmentally delayed children often have great success with the CosmoBot robot, which collects information about their performance.

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"The biggest argument for robot caregivers is that we need them," Aronson said. "We do not have anywhere near enough human caregivers for the growing number of older Americans. Robots could help solve this workforce crisis by strategically supplementing human care."

A robot caregiver would always be ready in the case of crisis, she said, and to be able to perform tasks around the clock and even chat with an elderly patient over the weather or news.

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Aronson acknowledges there are ethical issues that will need to be addressed, but at the same time she "can also imagine my patient’s smile when the robot says [caring words] ... , and I suspect she doesn’t smile much in her current situation, when she’s home alone, hour after hour and day after day."

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