Robots for Home Care

robot and frankA recent study has shown that baby boomers in the United States (ages 49 to 67 in 2013) are less likely to smoke or have a heart attack, but are more likely to have diabetes, high blood pressure, or obesity. Each of these conditions has attendant complications, such as stroke, vision loss (everyone over 40 should get a dilated eye exam), or heart disease. And these complications, in turn, can cause disability.

The health care industry is struggling to keep up with seniors’ needs, and one method that has had some success is through the use of home care robots, which was highlighted in the 2012 movie, Robot & Frank. These robots are designed to assist in a variety of tasks, such as helping to ensure patients take their medications, tracking patterns and alerting loved ones when something is amiss, holding simple conversations, and playing games.

Imagine, in 30–40 years’ time, being able to wake up and place your hand on a robot that can take your vitals, scan your body for anomalies, advise you on what to wear, tell you what it’s going to cook for dinner, and argue the finer points of existentialism. Well, you may have to wait a bit longer for Sartre’s views on the ego…but who knows?

In fact, Japan is looking to increase the use of home care robots among its elderly. It plans to give assistance to firms in developing low-cost nursing care robots ($5 to $10/month rental) and will include the use of robots in nursing care insurance coverage. There are four types of robots included in the plan:

  • An assistive robot suit worn by caretakers for lifting or moving elderly and impaired patients.
  • A robot that helps the elderly and others walk by themselves, even on inclines.
  • A self-cleaning robot toilet that can be carried from place to place to make it easier for the elderly to use the bathroom.
  • A robot that can track the movements and locations of dementia patients.

But there will likely be different types of robots for different chores. For example, a Georgia Tech study found that older people prefer humanoid robots for tasks that require intelligence, such as informing them which medication to take. But they prefer a more mechanical-looking robot for tasks that involve manual labor, such as cooking and cleaning, so they won’t feel guilty telling it what to do.

Of course, the topic of ethics comes up when assigning a robot to care for the elderly. People have a tendency to become attached to both people and objects that they interact with on a regular basis. An elderly aunt may begin telling stories about her life to a robot…but is that an acceptable substitute for telling the same story to a daughter or nephew? Part of family tradition is passing on stories of those who went before you. Will that part of our lives be relegated to a recorded message we may or may not listen to once Aunt Sally dies?

There’s no easy or simple solution. I think it comes down to a matter of weighing the benefits and costs involved in helping to ensure that our elderly relatives are safe. What are you willing to give up?

(Ed. Note: Robot & Frank is watchable for free here – this site will open an ad browser window in the background) and on Hulu Plus as well.)

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