The aging global population poses many obstacles to the general public. Not only must there be a shift in medical research to promote health in the later years of life, but the public interest begs answers to big questions: how does society help seniors live at home by the millions, since that is both highly desired by seniors and results in better health and financial outcomes? How can society protect this vulnerable population’s rights and ensure their safety? How can society possibly accommodate this many older, unemployed or retired people financially? How does society build adequate housing and facilities for them, both for medical care and for everyday life? How will families be affected? Some of these questions are not new, but they are newly urgent, as older people live even longer (and healthier!), and as the Baby Boomers become senior citizens. In Japan, the country with the highest life expectancy worldwide, they have found one part of the solution: robotic nurses.
The “population pyramid” in Japan places many more seniors in the population than younger people, thereby creating a shortage of nurses and other healthcare professionals, including caregivers. Therefore, Japan has had to think creatively. One of several robotic nurses in production and use there is called RIBA (Robot for Interactive Body Assistance). RIBA can lift and transport a 135-pound person, which is excellent for seniors who are post-surgery or who have difficulty getting in and out of a wheelchair or other mobility device, or for a senior who has fallen. RIBA can also take direction from an operator a distance away through its cameras and microphones. Actroid-F, which takes on the appearance of a human female and can even change its facial expressions, helps doctors work with patients at a distance. The limit of this robotic nurse is that it cannot operate on its own; it cannot help a senior that has fallen or needs physical assistance, but it can offer advice and comfort when a doctor or nurse cannot be physically present.
Robotic nurses that went on sale in June of 2015 cater specifically to Japan’s older population by being small and mobile (which makes sense, given the smaller homes and typical flooring in Japanese residential areas). These robotic nurses are mostly for communication between seniors, their caregivers, and physicians, though some can also track devices which measure blood pressure, heart rate, and more. This device is currently used in the homes of Japan’s seniors and is called Sota. It’s adorable, user-friendly interface is being integrated into nursing homes in Japan.
Does It Work?
The question of whether robots actually work effectively is more complicated. Most of these robotic nurses are still in the development stage, or have been used for only a few short years. They still fall short of being a true “nurse,” and cannot independently give advice, change treatments, or ensure the safety of seniors, either at home or in a care facility. There are some in the United States that do work well because they keep the scope of their abilities focused. The Pearl, for example, guides seniors through their daily activities, and notices patterns in their movements and habits. This can help seniors with dementia remember to take medicine, or help seniors get proper exercise each day by measuring distances walked. The Pearl can even remind seniors to get ready for their favorite television program.
What Caregivers Should Investigate
Many robots are not available in the United States, and, certainly, they are not sanctioned as replacements for health care professionals. Caregivers who might be interested in robotic helpers should first consider their needs, and whether or not those services can be received through a human first–after all, nothing helps the economy and seniors better than real, live human people. There are many qualified professionals who are already able to do the work that robotic nurses do, and they can offer years of training and experience, plus social intelligence and interaction, which a robot simply cannot.
However, if families cannot find professionals to assist for various reasons (from financial obstacles to scheduling conflicts to local availability to personal needs of the care receiver), then perhaps a robotic helper would be of use. As stated above, many of the machines being used in Japan are not sold commercially in the United States; yet there are other task-specific robotic helpers, like floor cleaners and medicine reminding robots. There are also various computer and smartphone programs that respond to human voices (such as Apple’s Siri or Microsoft’s Cortana) that are highly customizable.
It is important for caregivers to recognize when and if they are overwhelmed and need assistance. While healthcare professionals are the most likely to be able to recommend changes and assist with making better plans, technology support, including in the form of robots, is the wave of the future.
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