The use of robotics and other AI Technology in Long Term Care is a highly debated topic, and there are fair arguments both for and against. Their use, however, seeks to solve a grave concern in the field. The number of adults 65+ by 2050 is expected to rise to 88 million. At such large numbers, resources are essential to the ability to provide and care for our older populations.
The greatest resource is the caregivers themselves, and currently, there is a significant shortage in the United States. Recruitment of employees is hampered by negative stereotypes of nursing homes and the often deeply emotional realities of caring for someone at the end of their life.
The most common reason people choose to work in long-term care is that they had a good relationship with an older adult (commonly a grandparent) at some point in their lives. The lack of senior caregivers will become a national endemic if the issue is not addressed.
There are several different types of robotics for senior care, but the most commonly used are robotic caregivers, social robots, and teleconferencing robots. Their use has grown increasingly more popular over the years and can now be found in Japan, throughout Europe, and the US. As the number of older adults increases, their use could be the solution we are looking for. But can a robot actually replace the human connection and socialization we as humans need?
The Pros and Cons of Robotics in LTC
Designed and developed in Japan, the Robobear is a transfer and lift machine for people who have difficulties getting up and moving on their own. Traditionally, this is a job for Certified Nursing Assistants who assist in lifting and transferring individuals from the bed to their wheelchair or from the wheelchair to the bathroom.
Nowadays, there are Hoyer lifts and sit to stand lifts which help take some of the strenuous burdens off of the caregiver, but they are still in the room and able to talk or calm a resident during the transfer process.
The Robobear (as pictured above) is designed to make this process a bit less scary and jarring for seniors. However, the idea that a cute smiling bear is more inviting and more receptive to seniors is a bit unfounded, but it does offer a friendly alternative to the more sterile machine options on the market today. In their use, we should keep in mind the potential for confusion they may cause our residents with dementia or Alzheimer’s.
Prototypes of humanoid robots are still being developed. And one day we may find that robots that look like humans could replace our caregiving staff. Although this still seems like an idea of science fiction, Carebots are already developed and on the market and their use is specifically targeted to assist the elderly.
Social robots are developed to simulate real pets. Most common are dog and cat robots as seen in the video below. The company Hasbro’s found that their children’s toys were being used by a growing number of seniors and decided to create a line especially for older adults living in nursing homes.
These “pets” act and respond just as a real cat or dog would. The cats will purr and vibrate while being pet and meow in response to being held. Since pets aren’t allowed in many long-term care settings, this type of companionship is a welcome replacement. And especially for those living with Dementia or Alzheimer’s can offer a sense of comfort and purpose.
Hasbro is not the first to unroll a line of robotic pet companions. Japan has a line that was established in 2003, which was purposefully designed as a therapeutic intervention for seniors. Unfortunately, this line is a bit pricey and not as easily obtained whereas Hasbro’s Lifelike pets are much more reasonable at about $100.00.
The Cruciferous Vegetable Amplification episode of the Big Bang Theory parodies the idea of sending a virtual self out into the world through video conferencing. Funny or extreme as the concept of this was, this type of technology is available and for the medical field has great potential to allow physicians to be two places at once.
One such technology is the GiraffPlus, already on the market and providing In-Home help care to the elderly throughout Europe. The GiraffPlus is a vacuum cleaner, monitoring system, environment evaluator, and a telehealth conduit for seniors living in their home.
As the number of older adults remain in their home, these types of technologies make aging in place a sustainable living option even as care needs change. Alternatively, however, does the lack of a personal visit to the doctors or the now “traditional” form of health care offer something more than a teleconference can offer? Particularly to a more vulnerable population for isolation.
Can a robot console the way a human can?
Seven million Americans over the age of 65 suffer from depression. This number will continue to increase over the next several years, but without enough caregivers, it’s hard to care for the emotional and physical needs of our older adults.
And as many movie and TV representations show us, although some robotics are advanced with many capabilities true human connection is not one of them. Although robotics have become increasingly popular throughout Europe, Japan, and the US one French non-profit the Society of Saint-Vincent-De-Paul created a short clip that portrays the ill-effects this lack of human console can have on an individual.
The Future of Long Term Care
Technology has been incorporated in nearly every field so it is no surprise that we would find a way to advance our caregiving methods. Personally, I am still on the fence when it comes to robotics specifically and maybe only sold on the cute toy kittens and a bit weary of a giant smiling bear capable of lifting a person.
As a field, we still have an opportunity to invest in real live humans to fulfill our caregiving needs. In an earlier post, Addressing Our Caregiver Shortage through Intergenerational Programs: Introducing our Youth to Seniors Living in Long-Term Care I discuss the importance of intergenerational interventions now so that our youth will grow up wanting to care for their elders.