With fewer young people around for company and tighter healthcare budgets, an aging population is rightfully concerned about their futures. But engineers are working hard to change that outlook by developing robots that not only allow seniors to continue to live independently, but also cheer them up when they’re feeling low.
People are living longer. In 1956 a 60-year-old British female retiree had a life expectancy of just under 20 years; by 2010 that had extended further by an additional 12 years. Male longevity has similarly increased; a U.S. male born in 1950 might hope to reach his 66th birthday, while his 2010 counterpart can reasonably expect to enjoy at least a decade more.
But the extra years are not always golden. A recent report by the International Longevity Centre-UK noted that although today’s seniors are healthier overall, there are rising levels of illness among them. The report showed that in 2012, 14 percent of those over the age of 50 had a serious illness, down from 16 percent in 2002. However, illnesses among the 80 to 84 age group is rising, with 31 percent having a serious illness, up from 26 percent only a decade ago.
Caring for ailing seniors is expensive, and healthcare costs for the elderly promise to outstrip tax revenues – a problem compounded by a diminishing workforce. Worse yet, traditional support mechanisms are becoming outdated as grown-up children lack the time (and often the inclination) to look after aging parents. Recent developments in technology promise to provide a solution in the form of a new generation of “cyberconscious” robots – automatons that not only take over the well-being of seniors from human caregivers, but are also able to improve health outcomes by determining their charges’ moods and cheering them up when unhappiness descends.
Here Come the Robots
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a grouping comprised primarily of many of the world’s wealthiest countries, predicts that the number of people over the age of 65 in its member nations will expand from 85 million in 1970 to 350 million by 2050. Unfortunately the same can’t be said of the workforce paying the taxes traditionally used to fund the care of seniors. The result is that the ratio of employees to retirees, known as the support (or dependency) ratio, is deteriorating steadily in all wealthy nations. According to The Economist, in 1970 in the U.S., 5.3 workers supported every pensioner; by 2050, that number will drop to 2.6. The situation looks even worse in Japan, where in the same time period, the ratio is forecast to drop from 8.6 to 1.2.
Worse still, medical expenditures for seniors in the U.S. is forecast to balloon to over $638 billion by 2015 (up from $492 billion in 2012), accounting for more than half of the total healthcare budget, according to recent spending figures released by the U.S.
One strategy to rein in the healthcare budget is to encourage seniors to accept routine treatment at home by trained caregivers rather than in hospitals by expensive medical professionals. Anecdotal evidence shows that the elderly prefer to maintain this degree of independence, and this view is often backed by their families as well. The problem is an acute shortage of caregivers willing to visit seniors at home. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts that demand for such people will far outstrip supply in the years ahead. Demand is expected to jump 48 percent, while the number of caregivers will rise just 1 percent.
As some researchers are eager to suggest, robots could provide the answer by stepping (or rolling) in to replace human caregivers. Concerned families are likely to choose a robot that reminds parents to take their medication and provides company over the emotional and financial cost of moving their loved ones into an assisted living facility should such an option become practical. In practice, the robots, ranging from glorified lunch carts to human companions that wouldn’t be out of place on a science fiction film set, would assist the elderly with their day-to-day tasks and facilitate communications with family members via videoconferencing and the Internet. For this to work, the interface with the robot must be intuitive, and manufacturers must alleviate any fears that the elderly might have about relying on new technology.
The Electronic Nurse
The first generation of robots is already roaming the home. For example, more than 8 million of iRobot’s home robots have been sold worldwide. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) spin-off, a vacuuming robot, was among the first to make practical robots a reality. But caring for a senior is a little more complex than keeping carpets clean, so robots that can provide meaningful assistance and companionship for an aging population are taking a little longer to evolve. However, the first generation of caregiving robots has been under development for some years. Two examples can be found through the French company Robosoft’s Kompaï, as well as the U.S.-based GeckoSystems’ CareBot.
Kompaï, which first became available in 2010, features a touch-screen display and a spherical white head. Remote family members call the robot via the Internet and Kompaï uses ultrasonic sensors to detect the location of its charge and navigate to that person, who responds via the display and a webcam. Similarly, CareBot uses a combination of sensors to maintain awareness of its surroundings. The robot’s GeckoTrak software senses body heat, identifies colors, and uses sonar and infrared (IR) range finders to monitor a person’s movements in the home. CareBot’s software can be used to remind the person in its care to walk the dog or turn on the TV to catch a particular program.
Kompaï and CareBot, together with other first-generation home-care robots such as Giraff (Figure 1), created by Swedish company Giraff Technologies AB, are primarily designed to make it easy for remote relatives to keep in contact with loved ones through Internet videoconferencing. But all perform the equally vital task of monitoring their charges’ health via wireless connection to third-party medical monitoring systems that measure vital signs and forward the information to physicians via the Internet.
However, while these early home-care robots perform a useful task in keeping relatively healthy seniors in touch with families and medical staff, they fall far short of what’s needed to look after infirm elderly who are suffering from the ailments of advanced age such as brain degeneration, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
To assume the tasks of a live-in nurse, for example, requires a sophisticated robot with advanced sensors, learning capabilities, decision-making software and … a personality.
Research shows that seniors who spend most of their time alone live shorter and unhealthier lives than those with partners or live-in companions. Loneliness leads to an increased prevalence of mental illness such as depression, as well as physical symptoms like lack of appetite and restricted movement. For example, a large nationally representative survey of 3,000 older adults in the U.S. found that a lack of social relationships was associated with worse physical health, whether or not loneliness was actually experienced. Seniors who felt the most isolated reported 65 percent more depressive symptoms than those with more social interaction.
Another study, conducted in 2010, observed 200 people over the age of 65, of which 45 percent lived alone and 55 percent lived with partners. The study concluded that the former group prepared fewer daily meals and had a significantly lower daily intake of protein, fruits, and vegetables compared to people who lived with partners.
Home-care robot designers have been quick to acknowledge such research, and the next generation of robots will benefit from systems that allow them to act as companions as well as assistants. The concept is not new. In Japan, for example, a cuddly social robot called Paro has been available for a decade. Paro is an interactive robot developed by AIST, a Japanese industrial automation firm, allowing lonely elderly people to enjoy the documented benefits of animal therapy, which has been shown to reduce patient stress.
Paro employs tactile-, light-, temperature-, and posture-sensors, with which it can perceive people and its environment. For example, the tactile sensor allows the robot to detect if it is being stroked while the posture sensor can indicate Paro is being cuddled. The robot can also recognize the direction of voices and words such as its name via an audio sensor.
Steven Keeping gained a BEng (Hons.) degree at Brighton University, U.K., before working in the electronics divisions of Eurotherm and BOC for seven years. He then joined Electronic Production magazine and subsequently spent 13 years in senior editorial and publishing roles on electronics manufacturing, test, and design titles including What’s New in Electronics and Australian Electronics Engineering for Trinity Mirror, CMP and RBI in the U.K. and Australia. In 2006, Steven became a freelance journalist specializing in electronics. He is based in Sydney.