A Departure from Elder Issues
INTERESTING STUFF – 12 December 2015

Robot Caregivers and Old People

If you live long enough, one of these robots may be in your future.

This year for Christmas, Hasbro is selling what they call an animatronic cat for elders who cannot have a living pet.

It responds to touch, movement, sound, and it purrs:

The cat is essentially a toy (more information here) but you ain't seen nothin' yet. Dozens of care and companion robots with various purposes and capabilities are being developed.

Mabu provides support for people with such chronic diseases as diabetes arthritis, cancer and heart disease. Take a look:

Here is a second Mabu video, showing how it (she? he?) works in everyday situations:

Mabu, produced by Catalia Health, is available now but only through healthcare providers on whom the price is dependent, according to the website.

Then there is Jibo. Not quite the health-centric robot of Mabu but it probably has some of the same kind of capabilities.

Jibo is still in development but during the Indiegogo fund raising campaign earlier this year, the price to preorder was $749. You can find out more here.

According to a New York Times report, drones are in the future of elder home healthcare too:

“The University of Illinois roboticist, [Naira Hovakimyan], recently received a $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation to explore the idea of designing small autonomous drones to perform simple household chores, like retrieving a bottle of medicine from another room.

“Dr. Hovakimyan acknowledged that the idea might seem off-putting to many, but she believes that drones not only will be safe, but will become an everyday fixture in elder care within a decade or two. 'I’m convinced that within 20 years drones will be today’s cellphones,' she said.”

I haven't worked out for myself the advantage of a flying robot over an earthbound one in the home and I can easily imagine a string of difficulties. (Closed door, anyone?) Somehow, though, I think I would be more comfortable with a straightforward machine such as a drone than a plastic facsimile of a human (or animal), but who knows.

So convinced are health, technology, futurist, investor and other specialists of the need and desire of elders (and their adult children, I suspect) for robot caregivers that dozens are in various stages of development and deployment throughout the world.

Pepper, described as a social robot for the home and Geripal, a companion for elders at home and in assisted living are two of the better known at this time.

In large numbers, elders want to grow old in the homes where they have lived for many years. Most surveys come in at 89 and 90 percent and have done so for many years.

Further, as the baby boom generation ages into elderhood – turning 65 at the rate of about 10,000 a day since 2011 – concern is widely raised that, even though ageing at home is less expensive than assisted living and nursing homes, there will not be enough caregivers to help old people do that. Hence, robots.

For many years, my go-to person for sane and thoughtful input on elders and technology has been Laurie Orlov who has been producing the Aging in Place Technology Watch website since 2008.

Last week, she wrote about how eldercare robotics is nowhere near ready for prime time for some important reasons beyond the technology itself:

”The news media love stories about caregiver robot possibilities. But of course, they don't like to write about the reality.

“Who keeps Paro the seal clean enough for the elderly to pass from hands to dirty hands? Who makes sure that robotic devices are properly charged and operational? Or has someone invented another task for the overworked humans working in senior housing?

“And as for the home-bound elderly, is this better than a Skype call from a professional or family caregiver? Someone who guides a camera around the home setting and determines that an emergency is about to or has happened?

“Is it really necessary (or true) that everyone who could help provide care to older adults will have opted out or disappeared by 2050...In the meantime, there is at least one reason why the home care industry (the one that sends real people to the home) is booming. Paro, Pepper, Jibo, GeriJoy – all together, they just can’t get the job done.”

You can read more here.

In 2012, Frank Langella starred in Robot and Frank, a movie about a retired jewel thief whose son, worried that Frank's cognitive abilities are fading, gives him a state-of-the-art caregiver robot.

Obviously, this robot is way, way, way ahead of what is possible now. Frank begins as I would in the circumstance, despising the robot. By the end of the movie (spoiler alert), robot had become Frank's good friend and buddy.

There is much to consider in the idea that a collection of electronic nuts and bolts and circuit boards can become a companion as beloved as a human. More about that in a future post.


This summer I listened to an episode of the TED Radio Hour that led with the story of an experience related by Sherry Turkle, who is a technologist who wants people to at least be aware of how technology affects humanity. Turkle was disturbed the first time she watched an elderly woman interacting with a robot seal while a roomful of professional caregivers applauded how lifelike the seal was and how much joy it seemed to give the woman. Turkle was disturbed because in that moment she realized, "We expect more from technology and less from each other." It's a thought that has remained with me. I do value technology, and I appreciate the reminder that its use can have unintended consequences.

I think a kind of robot that would remind me and then produce my required meds every morning would be helpful. Other than that, I don't think robot companions will work that well for those of us too old and compromised to be left on our own. Some ALFs allow pets, or even have a pet coming in regularly for residents. A live pet seems like a better choice to me, for the declining elderly in a group home, than a fake pet.

Having owned many cats in my time, I LOVE the toy cat, LOVE it! Think about what it is that makes you want a cat: Their response to you; having a warm, cuddly on your lap; having something to come home to. Think about what you don't want from a cat: the critters it brings in, they are dirty, as I discovered after the last of my cats, who regularly cleaned herself and who slept with us, went to her maker (my house needed a lot less cleaning and yes, it is true that we never had less than two cats, but....); worrying about leaving the cat[s] on [their] own when planning a trip and who will feed, pet, make sure no dead critters have appeared in the house, etc.
Unlike most biological forms, I do not find the idea that we are ever becoming more automated a horrifying one. Emotions and the ability to empathize (which I feel is directly associated with emotions) are probably the one thing that would separate us from a mechanized being and I find that as a society, emotions have been so suppressed and young people so controlled by technology that most people do not even know what it means to respond emotionally (except in the two basest emotions: fear and anger, which the media and politicians seems more than happy to exploit). In a world where our elderly population are forced into isolation because of circumstances, having a wonderful fuzzy to pet brings life and meaning back into someone who would otherwise just sit in their room or in the hallway of a "care" facility.

The drive to automate care produces all sorts of anomalies. This isn't about robotics, but I found it interesting.

A friend in her 90s is spending a month in a "board and care home." She has balance problems, fell and broke her clavicle, and is recovering from the break nicely. BUT, she needs 24/7 help until she can again use both arms to control her walker. Hence her stint in rehab.

So once she was installed, a visiting nurse turned up to set up a lender machine on which she is supposed to weigh herself, take her blood pressure and measure her oxygen saturation, automatically sending the data to the visiting nurse agency. That is, she is expected to perform functions usually done by techs in a hospital on a mobile system.

Of course this doesn't work -- she's in rehab because of limited mobility; she can't manage the tests herself (and the board and care staff are not trained or permitted to perform these "medical" functions).

Somebody is trying to impose a half-baked mechanical solution on a situation that cries out for human labor.

BUT -- I can imagine ending my days holding a (much improved) cat facsimile. A live one would be better, but when I can no longer clean a litter box, perhaps ...

Well Ronni, I have been completely taken by the "Robot & Frank" trailer and have already chased it down on Comcast. Cheap I may be but I guarantee I will pay the $3.99 rental fee and be watching it this evening. Looks to be my kind of film and I am a huge fan of Frank Langella. I am a bit in shock however that I had never heard of it until your post today.

As far as robots in general and the old nursing home, even though for vanities sake I would love it if, when the time may come, a robot rather than a caregiver could give me a bath or wipe my ass... I suspect however it will be years away before such amenities are functional in a robot.

I dunno . . . they're machines . . .

Hmmm. . .if I can no longer perform the most basic ADL tasks for myself, if I'm reduced to a state of existence (not "life") where my body is no longer functional, and if I cannot find or AFFORD human help, maybe that would be the time for me to consider departing this life. I love cats and have two. I can't imagine that a robot cat is a very good substitute, litterbox notwithstanding.

However, I will try to keep an open mind on the whole subject. I'm not a total technophobe, but in janinsanfran's example, IMO it's beyond ridiculous to expect a 90+ Y/O woman recovering from a serious injury to use automation to carry out semi-technical tasks that should be performed by the staff of the so-called "board and care" facility. These are NOT high-level medical functions for someone with a few hours of training.

I've been involved in the tech industry since my mid 30s as it first began...if you can call wire spring relays 'tech'. Up thru the early 2000s when I retired from the industry, so I'm fairly comfortable with tech. I wonder, though, who is going to load my pills into the robo-nurse..easier to put it in a box I keep by my bedside. And as others have asked - what about cleaning of the machine-Untill I can have my own CP3O I'll stick with a live dog and my pill box.

My mother in law spent 20 years in Adult Foster Care where she received help bathing, with medication and feeding and dressing. It is gong to take something more flexible that a Health Care Robot to give that kind of care! And that is exactly why my daughter and I built a house together with an accessable living area, a ramp and a roll in shower should I ever need it.

Others have mentioned different downfalls of this whole concept - perhaps the development will progress with the aging of the very techie generation, like my 53 year old developer son. But for me-if I get to the point where human care isn't available and I can no longer count out my meds myself it will be time to consider other options.

Our friend Duck had an earlier version of the cat, but G and I weren't fond of it. A robot cat wouldn't damage the furniture, vomit all over the place or spray. We wouldn't be so violently allergic to it either.

This post is a coincidence for me, because the book I'm listening to now, THE RISE OF THE ROBOTS by Martin Ford, just covered robots for the elderly. And the last book I listened to, COUNTDOWN by Alan Weisman, about overpopulation, also had a chapter about robots for the elder. The current robots you showed are really toys for the elderly. When I get old and can't take care of myself I wouldn't mind having a robot caretaker like ROBOT AND FRANK. Although, I think before I got to the stage of needing a robot companion, I'd prefer a lightweight exo-skeleton. Any machine that let me take care of myself would be appreciated. I'd rather have a robot wipe my ass than contracting that duty to some low-paid human worker. But I wonder, would unemployed humans prefer to change diapers on old people or just let automation have that job category?

From a retired RN (48 yrs of nursing experience)I have but one thing to add: Bah & humbug. :) Dee

A robot or some electronic system could probably do a lot of useful things. But only a living, breathing, purring cat can provide what a cat provides.

Which reminds me, Ronni, of a story you did a while back about a lady who was being kicked out of her retirement home because she wouldn't give up the cat she'd had for a number of years (some new rule put into effect or something). Did you ever hear what happened to her? Was she allowed to stay and keep her cat, or did she find other housing where she could keep the cat? I think about her occasionally and how awful that home was to demand she either give up her cat or move out.

I've had cats since I was 2 years old and I can't imagine a mechanical cat replacing any of them. It horrifies me, to be honest! I know a woman, a great cat lover, who had her favorite cat "stuffed" and said having it on her bed gave her great comfort. Yuch!!

With possibilities like this in the future, I'm so glad to be old and hope I will be long gone before any if it becomes reality.

All of these products fall for me into the Uncanny Valley: they are too human-like to be only a piece of technology, not nearly human enough to qualify as human. (...Or cat, as the case may be!)

I'm no technophobe. I've been using cutting-edge tech all my life. As devices, these imitation-creatures strike me as incredibly, insultingly, patronizing. "You poor old person, you're not able to handle having a simple smartphone app remind you to take your pills. So we'll make an imitation person to talk down to you. It will do the same thing the app would, but in words of one syllable, and because you're terrified of technology, it will pretend to be a person. And you're so stupid, or so needy, or so lonely, that you will put up with this."

Sorry. I'm having none of that. When they come up with a robot that can pass an extended days-long Turing test -- where I get to choose the topics of conversation -- then we can talk.

Until then, keep those half-and-half things away from me. If I want a reminder, that's what alarm apps are for.

I'm with you, Sylvia. Tech has it's place, but not to REplace vital human connections.

As an aside - well done, congratulations, Mr. President, with the Climate Summit and thank you- take a lap - for you, for us.

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