Will Robotics Have a Role in Senior Living?

By: Joe Cuticelli
Feb 24, 2017 6:00 AM ET

Watching R2D2 and C3PO in the Star Wars series performing heroic tasks to assist Luke, Leia and Han Solo (and their predecessors) in their battle against the Empire seemed very natural to me. We saw them as real characters and an integral part of the world they participated in.

Given that sourcing caregivers to care for our elderly citizens is a major issue for the senior living industry globally, the development of robotic solutions is well underway. Dependency ratios – the proportion of working age people to the elderly – are growing. And, for the first time in human history, people aged 65 and over will outnumber children under age 5 before 2020. These two age groups will then continue to grow in opposite directions. By 2050, the proportion of the population aged 65 and older (15.6 percent) will be more than double that of children under age 5 (7.2 percent). This unique demographic phenomenon is unprecedented.

So who will help care for us as we age? Robots are very likely to be staff members of the future.

Case in point: newly published research in the International Journal of Human-Computer Studies indicates that senior living communities will want to choose the type of robot they use based on the goals they seek to accomplish with it. The study, conducted in the United States, Singapore and Hong Kong, revealed that participating residents “wanted companion robots to be serious and assistant robots to be playful,” according to lead author S. Shyam Sundar, Ph.D., the Distinguished Professor of Communications and co-director of the Media Effects Research Laboratory at Pennsylvania State University. “But it’s pretty clear from our data that a serious demeanor adds credibility to a companion robot, whereas a playful demeanor softens the tension when interacting with an assistant robot.” Two vocal recordings were used to manipulate robots’ perceived demeanors. A higher-pitched voice was considered more playful, whereas a voice deemed to be serious had limited changes in inflection and tone.

I don’t think there’s much doubt that it will become common for senior living residents and their caregivers to be assisted by robots. IBM Research recently announced a prototype Multi-Purpose Eldercare Robot Assistant, or MERA, developed with students and faculty members from Rice University. And Dr. Naira Hovakimyan of the University of Illinois is designing small drones to perform simple household chores like retrieving items from another room. She presented on the subject at the Aging 2.0 OPTIMIZE Conference, highlighting research on human-robot interactions and how this technology may assist in prolonging our independence as we age.

According to “The Longevity Economy,” a publication from the American Association of Retired People (AARP), a long list of robotic and artificial-intelligence-derived technologies will be commercially available in the near future, including smart pendants that track falls.

One of many examples includes North Ridge in New Hope, MN, managed by Mission Health and offering a continuum of care — adult day care, independent living, assisted living, skilled nursing and rehabilitation — will be the first to use Reemo smartwatches and communication tools to provide caregivers, residents and their family members with real-time health and wellness information while simultaneously allowing the health system to track biometric and behavioral data remotely.

Tina Thomas, senior vice president of operations for Mission Health said, “As we saw how technology is impacting delivery of care in all sectors of healthcare, we were looking for a solution that could expand our abilities and create efficiencies in our community and Reemo was just that,” “We’re looking forward to seeing how the solution’s helpful insights into patient data will increase our ability to deliver proactive, informed care to our residents.”

And that’s what we’re all striving for – delivering resident-centered care that improves quality of life. Even if we need to enlist C3PO to help.