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A Robotic Companion for the Elderly?

Who’s going to check on mom? In the coming years, the answer may increasingly be a robotic — rather than human — caregiver.


Finding a reliable, affordable caregiver to check on elderly adults with dementia or physical disabilities — or who are simply frail and need assistance — is a dilemma a growing number of adult children in the U.S. are facing. The number of people aged 65 and up is on the rise, projected to climb to 72.1 million —19 percent of the population — by 2030, from 39.6 million in 2009, — about 13 percent —according the Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration on Aging.

Home healthcare is expensive, averaging $19 an hour, according the Federal Long-Term Care Insurance Program. Nursing home care costs an average of $227 a day. What’s more, many adult children live far away from their parents or are too pressed for time to check on their parents as frequently as they want or need to.

Technology could help to ease the burden on adult children, as well as assist elderly adults who don’t have family members to care for them, in the form of friendly robotic pets, digital pet avatars or human-like videoconferencing screens. While there are ethical issues yet to be resolved, advances in robotics, artificial intelligence and telemedicine are providing a window into how care might change for mom — or you.

Meet Paro, a robotic baby harp seal developed by Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) that functions as “pet” therapy for people with dementia or depression. Embedded with sensors, the robot reacts to petting, responds to simple words and can modify its responses based on the way the person touches or talks to it. Better yet, unlike a live animal, it doesn’t need food or exercise.


Paro is a robotic baby seal that functions as “pet” therapy for people with dementia or depression. (Image courtesy of AIST, Japan)

A research study partly sponsored by AIST indicated that elderly adults with cognitive problems who petted and played with the Paro seal had improved brain functioning.

GeriJoy, a start-up founded by two Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers, combines pet therapy, avatars and tablet computing to provide virtual pet companions for elderly adults. GeriJoy CEO Victor Wang thought up the idea for the remote caregiving service after observing how his mother had to travel back and forth to her native Taiwan to care for her elderly mother. He wondered if there was a way to ease the stress on caregivers by developing a way to remotely check on elderly adults.

“There is a lot more demand for caregiver hours or health care hours than there is supply — that is a fundamental problem driving up the cost, and we are a solution to that,” says Wang.


GeriJoy CEO Victor Wang and one of his company’s virtual companions. (Image courtesy of GeriJoy)

The caregiver provided by GeriJoy is a trained “helper” located in the Philippines who communicates through an avatar of a cute dog or cat on a tablet app, checking on elderly clients through streaming audio and visual monitoring. These helpers spark conversations with the elderly clients, respond to questions and prompt them to take medication, eat and exercise. They compile notes on the client’s general well being, written in the cheerful voice of the pet avatar, that can be read by home health aides or family members. The client can “feed” and “pet” the virtual animal, which responds to noises and movement and goes to “sleep” at night.

The company is conducting a pilot study with Pace University to study whether GeriJoy companions can improve cognitive function and mood for low-income elderly people. Wang says the results so far are promising.

GiraffPlus, an EU-funded project, also uses technology to provide virtual caregiving, but with a different approach. The Giraff, which consists of a tablet screen attached to a wheeled cart by a telescopic pole, can be controlled remotely. Caregivers and family members chat with the elderly person through videoconferencing and move the Giraff, almost as if they were there in person. Sensors feed data back to the caregiver on blood pressure and other vitals.

Despite the advances in robotic companionship, some experts caution that these technologies are no panacea and should be used with care. Tom Sorell, a professor of politics and philosophy who leads the Interdisciplinary Ethics Research Group at the University of Warwick in the U.K., argues that an ethical framework should be developed for robotic caretakers that respects the elderly person’s autonomy and decision-making. Amanda and Noel Sharkey, computer scientists at the University of Sheffield, have highlighted the need to balance the benefits of robotic companions with the potential risks of treating elderly adults like children — or deceiving people with dementia who may not be able to distinguish between human and robotic caregivers.

Wang says using his company’s avatar companions isn’t an either-or situation. “We are not replacing human caregiving. It is meant as a complement to in-person care for when a person who is caregiver has to go to work or when the family can’t afford a paid caregiver 24/7. We can help to complement what they are doing.”

Whether or not robot caregivers are in your mom’s future, it’s clear that these new technologies will play some a role in meeting the challenge of caring for America’s aging population.

Top image: Nonna Lea communicates through her Giraff. (Courtesy of CNR)

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