Robots: The future of elder care?
July 19th, 2013
03:42 PM ET

Robots: The future of elder care?

By Heather Kelly, CNN

Would you let a robot take over as a live-in nurse for your aging parent or grandparent?

In 2050, the elderly will account for 16 percent of the global population. That's 1.5 billion people over the age of 65, according to the Population Reference Bureau. Caring for those seniors - physically, emotionally and mentally - will be an enormous undertaking, and experts say there will be a shortage of professionals trained and willing to take on the job.

"We have to find more resources and have to get new ways of delivering those resources and delivering the quality of care," says Antonio Espingardeiro, an expert in robotics and automation at the University of Salford in Manchester, England, and a member of the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society.

Enter the elder-care robot.

Robots have the potential to meet many of the needs of an aging population, according to Espingardeiro. A software engineer, Espingardeiro is finishing his PhD on new types of human and robotic interaction. He has developed a model of elder-care robot, P37 S65, which can monitor senior patients and communicate with doctors while providing basic care and companionship.

Espingardeiro sees great potential for robots as caregivers. They can use sensors and cameras to supervise an elderly person, making sure they take their medication at the right time or that they don't fall. Smart-home technology is addressing some of these issues, using sensors to track patterns and automatically detect when something is amiss. For example, in a fully automated house, a stove left on for too long or a person deviating from their normal daily patterns could trigger an alert for caregivers.

Bur robots could take such automated care a step further. They could help people suffering from dementia, reminding them about daily tasks and retaining important information - phone numbers, or types of medication - that the senior might forget. With a few conversational skills, robots might also keep an aging person's mind sharp by engaging them in chit-chat and challenging them with questions or games, while even tracking their progress or loss of memory over time.

Robots with computer screens could also act as telepresence machines, bridging the gap between health-care professionals and the elderly. Traveling to the hospital can be a stressful experience, and frequent nurse visits are cost and time prohibitive. Instead, a doctor could check in on their patient more frequently via the robot's screen, even controlling the machine remotely for simple tasks like taking vitals. Family members could communicate remotely with a parent or grandparent via a telepresence robot - Skype with movement and a body.

With advanced artificial intelligence and humanoid designs, these robots could even act as companions, potentially alleviating loneliness.

Japan is already experimenting with elder-care robots in nursing homes. Barely a foot high, the Palro is people shaped, with two arms, two legs and a head. It can have simple conversations and play games. A more adorable approach is the Palro therapy bot, which has been around for more than a decade. The robots look like small stuffed harp seals and respond to petting with body and eye movements. They are an alternative to therapy animals to calm and de-stress the elderly.

The Japanese government is looking seriously to robots as a solution for its growing elder population and has set aside $24 million of its 2013 budget for research and development of senior-care robots.

Even with these early forays into the field, Espingardeiro predicts it could be 25 years before full robotic care is possible. Researchers still need to improve the reliability of the robots and work on semantics and pattern recognition. Assistive-care robotics is benefiting from research in other industries, like space and defense, where there are larger budgets. Advancements in these areas, such as research done for the Mars Curiosity rover, will trickle down and benefit all robotics fields.

The wait for a fully-functional robotic nurse is not just because the hardware, software and artificial intelligence need work. Scientists also need to figure out the best methods for safely using them.

"Delivering machines is not just a question of buying robots, even if in the future they become cheap. There are many ethical issues," said Espingardeiro.

Currently Espingardeiro and others are researching the advantages and disadvantages of robots over human caretakers. They are also looking into the potentially troubling implications of a patient developing an emotional connection to a robot.

"This is a very vulnerable group, very frail," said Espingardeiro. "What happens if they get attached to these machines?"

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Filed under: Innovation • Robots • Science • Tech • The Next List • Uncategorized
soundoff (76 Responses)
  1. waynecaswell76

    One of the often cited problems with health care robots is that they can't replace love and companionship. Well, maybe they can do that too. Go to YouTube, search for "Paro companion", and see how this robot seal is used today. You'll see seniors who love their robot and carry on conversations with it, like talking to a cat or dog.

    One of the challenges is designing robots that look and behave in a friendly manner, but that seems to be an achievable objective.

    February 25, 2014 at 10:18 pm | Reply
  2. louiedonovan55

    Hopefully, this robots, can do the job of real elderly caring. Surely, care giver robots can be controlled remotely by a human until the most advanced technology in robots comes which does not need external control to function.
    san diego home care

    February 25, 2014 at 3:51 pm | Reply
  3. In home personal training Long Island

    I love the idea , but nothing beats a real human. The other problem is 24/7 human care is so expensive and they steal. That's why we
    have family. That's why family is so important. Great read! thanks, Whats next.

    December 16, 2013 at 10:33 am | Reply
  4. Ann Shirley

    While I appreciate the shift in technology that enables robot caregivers to be an option, I'm not sure I would want them to have sole responsibility over my elders. Robots could provide many services such as monitoring as you mentioned to ensure that seniors take the proper medication, but they can't provide the one service many seniors need most of all: love and companionship. Seniors love to have company and for their caretakers to feel more like a friend than a doctor to them. These robots will feel more like spies keeping careful watch on the seniors that friends.

    I'd rather use a service like New Jersey Senior Care. They offer visiting angels with the goal of having caretakers available to meet senior citizen's unique needs in a way that makes them feel more like a friend and less like a doctor. They provide exceptional care, but their visits are still personalized and of a genuine nature that robots just simply can't provide.

    September 23, 2013 at 1:06 pm | Reply
  5. nursepat414

    Don McLaughlin, bravo. I too, took care of my parents as well as my in-laws and they lived in our home and our children saw that you love and take care of those who loved and took care of you. Hopefully they learned and will pass it on to their children. By my name you see I am a nurse and have worked for close to 40 years in nursing homes taking care of those who where "forgotten". I wouldn't have given up my life of taking care of them for anything. As far as future robotics, it's a way for people to make money and lose a very special profession of special people who care.

    August 26, 2013 at 7:58 am | Reply
    • Debbie Robinson RN

      Pat,I think you are a wonderful person and a nurse. I feel the same way. People need the human touch of someone that cares! I to have worked as a nurse with the elderly for 30 yrs. and when they see me they light up because they know I really care about them. I can't see a computer robot doing that.

      August 26, 2013 at 1:07 pm | Reply
  6. waynecaswell76

    Healthcare Robots – Eldercare in the Hands of Machines (http://www.mhealthtalk.com/2012/05/healthcare-robots/) is one of several related articles on my website about tech solutions for elder care.

    August 20, 2013 at 12:35 pm | Reply
    • waynecaswell76

      Several other related articles on healthcare robots and bionics can be found at http://www.mhealthtalk.com/tag/robots/.

      Tech solutions for home healthcare naturally include healthcare robots, some of which can enhance our physical abilities or make up for disabilities, while others assist healthcare workers or in some cases replace their jobs entirely. But what does the future hold for such devices? Will robots take over? And if a robot replaces your healthcare job, what will you do next?

      August 20, 2013 at 12:44 pm | Reply
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  8. Erick

    Yes time has been change, This is realty of future, Robots will take care of elder. Although some agency work very good for care of seniors.I also work with the agency that care the seniors "San Diego Care Giver".

    August 8, 2013 at 3:45 am | Reply
  9. Tatiana Covington

    Carol Emshwiller got there 55 years ago!

    "Baby," Fantasy & Science Fiction, Vol. 14, No 2, Feb. 1958

    And her husband Ed did the cover.

    Doesn't anyone else read Science Fiction? I knew about this way back when.

    August 1, 2013 at 8:16 pm | Reply
  10. rory

    Hope I can afford one when they're commercially available.

    July 22, 2013 at 10:05 am | Reply
  11. Dan

    Someone working on a Ph.D.at an unknown university in the UK can hardly be considered an expert in robotics. CNN – you have a wonderful resource at GaTech right next door to your headquarters. Why not talk to them before publishing opinion about 25 years to deployment for this technology? Personally I think it will be much much sooner.

    July 22, 2013 at 7:02 am | Reply
  12. Zipwizard

    By 2050 everyone in advanced countries can achieve 100 yrs plus. That will change our social economics in SS, retirement accounts, and experience on the job.

    If people are reaching 110 yrs average, retirement age tends to move up. But I imagine once they understand aging, the population living will leap to 150 yrs...and then go beyond that. And this will make people in their 60's & 70's only middle aged.

    July 22, 2013 at 4:46 am | Reply
  13. Mark

    What we need are IT robots to put IT engineers out of work, then maybe they'd cut back on all of the job killing automation.

    July 21, 2013 at 9:38 pm | Reply
  14. JiminNM

    Eugenics to the max. LOL at the judgment.

    July 21, 2013 at 4:28 pm | Reply
  15. Portland tony

    I personally believe that need for robotic caretakers will diminish as in time as failing body parts will be repaired, renewed, replicated or replaced using a persons own genetic codes and stem cell technology. Perhaps even the brain can be "refurbished" In 500 years death as we know it may not even occur. What we'll need is robotic nannies. :)

    July 20, 2013 at 11:56 pm | Reply
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  17. Klittich

    How sad!

    July 20, 2013 at 10:36 am | Reply
  18. JR

    Time to stock up on Old Glory insurance

    July 19, 2013 at 11:46 pm | Reply
  19. Name*

    This is horrible. The aging deserve human touch, care and compassion.

    July 19, 2013 at 9:54 pm | Reply
    • M.E.

      Right. How are we supposed to work to support our families while giving proper care to the elderly? What about aging people with no children to care for them? Robots are perfect.

      July 19, 2013 at 11:54 pm | Reply
      • aflyinpenguin

        They are called CNAs. Its a profession that cannot be replaced by automation. Some people actually DO support their families by working full time taking care of the elderly. Lets not give that sector to the robots, too.

        July 21, 2013 at 8:08 pm |
      • Don McLaughlin

        I'm not hearing it. I took care of both my parents until they shed the mortal coil. People seem to think it's okay to give up on the elderly and shuffle them off to a home or, in this case, give them a machine to take care of them. It's a ridiculous excuse for ageism in our culture. You take care of your family. Period. Talking about how "hard" it is is a ridiculously lame excuse for a person just not wanting to be bothered with it.

        July 30, 2013 at 3:12 am |
  20. Rusty Shackleford

    Just as I suspected. The robots will rise over humanity and become our overlords by the year 2073.

    July 19, 2013 at 7:44 pm | Reply
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    July 19, 2013 at 5:04 pm | Reply

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