In last Sunday’s Times (July 20, 2014, p. 4 of The Review), UC/San Francisco professor of geriatrics Dr. Louise Aronson, opines that the “two conditions that dominate [many of her elderly patients are] loneliness and disability.” Busy or distant children, part-time caregivers, and surviving friends are the contacts that elderly persons have in their homes. They are not enough to overcome the loneliness. “What [an elder particularly] needs is someone who is always there, who can help with everyday tasks, who will listen and smile.” For more than a generation, as elder care moved from home to facilities, a work force composed largely of recent immigrants provided much of the personal care required in otherwise dehumanized settings. Xenophobia, rampant in current American politics, may have an unexpected effect on care for elders. Fewer immigrants, especially poorer ones who don’t have superior technological or scientific skills, will be available as an increasing number of aging baby boomers require more and more help.
In Japan, where the dearth of caretakers for elders is even more severe than ours (due to demographics and a much lower rate of immigration), the solution apparently is iyashi (healing) robots which can lift and move elders from their beds or from sitting positions, remind them of the pills they need to take, and alert remote human caretakers of unexpected emergencies. The Swedes invented GiraffPlus, a robot which monitors human patients’ blood pressure and other health metrics and facilitates real time communications between patients and their physicians.
Although machines already assist at surgeries in operating rooms in a growing number of American hospitals, we’ve been slower to develop “social robots,” i.e. robots who, either in appearance or in function, resemble humans or pets and can actually carry on conversations. New to Japanese nursing homes is “Paro,” a robot that resembles a baby seal and responds to human speech. Sherry Turkle, the M.I.T. psychologist who has been studying the interaction between humans and robots for three decades, now finds herself among the skeptics. Her latest book, ALONE TOGETHER: WHY WE EXPECT MORE FROM TECHNOLOGY AND LESS FROM EACH OTHER (the most recent choice of the Newton At Home book group in which I participate, critiques the use of “social robots” in raising children or caring for the old, yet she admits that having observed Miriam, a demented 72 year old, interacting with a Paro, she had to conclude that Miriam “found comfort when she confided in her Paro. Paro took care of Miriam’s desire to tell her story.”
Professor Aronson believes that many of us already, in effect, converse with things other than people. We rush from one meeting to another speaking or texting without break to a disembodied friend or co-worker,.while oblivious to the real people whose paths we cross. We text rather than talk with our friends. We (actually, as a technophobe, I don’t) divulge more information through Facebook than we do through ordinary conversations. Creating social robots makes up for many of the ways that elders find themselves bereft of friends and whose family whose schedules are too tight to take time simply to “talk.”
Robots perform some tasks as well or better than human caretakers. That’s particularly true of repetitive chores such as dispensing medications regularly, cleaning up after toileting, or transferring seniors from and to bed. We forget how much we depend on fairly recent inventions to brew individual cups of coffee, clean and dry laundry, record telephone messages, or even set heating and air conditioning to vary temperatures throughout the day. Engineers at M.I.T. believe that it won’t be too long before self-driving cars will transport persons who are no longer able to drive themselves. Add to those tasks the possibility that robots might carry on intelligent (or at least “caring”) chats over breakfast or read a book out loud to an elder whose eye sight isn’t what it used to. Even now, well designed robots and robotic devices make it possible for people to live longer in their own homes, If they gain “social” skills, robots may replace children “who never call.”
Aronson notes that Jim Osborn, executive director of the Quality of Life Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon, contends that, while much of the technology already exists, the next hurdle is to find a way to market broadly (to individuals and facilities) these robots in order to reduce substantially their cost to the consumer.