Robots Are Good For Our Health

As our population ages both in the United States and abroad, we’re forced to reckon with not only retirement at large, but also how we will care for our elders. If those in need simply outnumber those of us ready and willing to provide care, how will we manage?

By 2035, the population of those 65 and older in the United States will outnumber children under 18 for the first time in history. The United Nations projects that worldwide, the number of people over 60 will more than double by 2050, to 2.1 billion. And yet the number of health care workers for the elderly is on the decline. Japan is the starkest example; known for its ever-increasing longevity, low birth-rate and barriers to immigration, it’s facing a shortage of almost 500,000 health nurses by 2025. Here in the US, the ratio of caregivers to care recipients has been falling since 2010, and that trend is expected to continue. An Age Wave / Merrill Lynch survey projects that from 2015 to 2050, the percentage of caregivers will increase by only 13% while the percentage of care recipients will go up by 84%. Houston, we have a problem.

So, what is being done? France has started a program to pay postal workers to visit with single, elderly people they bring mail to, and some hospitals and nursing homes in France are using Zora, a human-operated robot, in nursing homes to talk to people with dementia. Japan is looking for robots to fill the gap, such as Robear, which can pick up people for bathing and other heavy-lifting tasks. In the United States, we’ve seen the introduction of Paro, the therapeutic seal, which is said to lift the spirits of those living with dementia, and Hasbro’s Joy for All, whose toy dogs and cats are intended for companionship.

I realize how this sounds: like we’re leaving our elders out to pasture, talking to a piece of plastic. If my mother, who is 93 and in assisted living, started a relationship with a fake cat, that might take some adjustment. But she’s well in body and mind, and, to be honest, she doesn’t even like real cats. If she were dealing with some kind of cognitive impairment, and a robotic cat brought her comfort, I think I would feel differently.

Hypotheticals aside, while I visit my mom regularly, as do my sisters, on a larger scale, one of the real issues for elders is loneliness and social isolation. The impact on health and longevity is well-documented and very real — like smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

For example, even though my 92-year-old father-in-law got a new lease thanks to a pacemaker, when I asked him about his daily life at Thanksgiving, it sounded lonely. As a widower, he doesn’t want to sit with couples at dinnertime lest he make the husband jealous or feel like a third wheel, and he doesn’t want to disturb groups of women by plopping down at their table, so he gets his meal and takes it back to his room to watch TV. That’s he gets for being conscientious. And who does he talk to? Alexa, wishing her good morning and good night. While you couldn’t say he’s depending on a robot for companionship, Alexa uses conversational AI to make his day a little brighter.

In general, I think we have to remember that the use of robots is meant to augment human interaction, not replace it. Throughout history we’ve tended to fear a legendary ‘rise of the machines,’ but modernizations have usually created efficiencies — and jobs. When mundane tasks are automated, humans can move onto more meaningful activities, and in an economy that’s growing, that translates to overall job growth. Essentially, we’re not going to find a robot-run nursing home anytime soon.

I don’t think it comes as a surprise to us that robots aren’t perfect. Robear is still undergoing development because it needs to be more gentle with elderly people’s skin. And perhaps you heard the news about a robot at Amazon sending dozens to the hospital after accidentally puncturing a bottle of bear repellent. While that’s clearly worrisome, and I hope everyone makes it out of that okay, I think we have to remember that it’s not the norm.

This week, I spoke to Erin Partridge, an experiential researcher at ElderCare Alliance, who participated in a pilot study with MIT Media Labs last summer involving social robots in assisted living settings. During our conversation, she highlighted the fact that when it comes to social robots in eldercare, it’s not about having folks talking endlessly to a robot, but really about stimulating a person’s desire to have more human-to-human interaction. So, I think it’s time for us to shift our mindset from feeling dismayed or disheartened about the introduction of robots into assisted living environments to realizing that the individuals benefiting from these devices are getting more human interaction as a result. Conclusion? Robots can be good for our health.