robots help the elderly FEATURE
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Robots with a friendly humanoid face are the new helpers at nursing homes.

While the idea of ‘a robot in every home’ reminiscent of The Jetsons is far from being realized, robots are finding their way more and more into nursing homes. By 2030, the number of elderly in the world will double from 600 million today, while a shortage of caregivers for the elderly will also rise dramatically.

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Last year, robots were tested at a nursing home in Florence, Italy and were programmed for such tasks as accompanying the elderly to the dining room to reminding them when to take their medications. Filippo Cavallo is a professor at the BioRobotics Institute near Pisa where he founded Robot-Era that makes robots that move around on wheels but have a friendly humanoid face.

Cavallo says the robot’s sensors and cameras are used to gather – and analyze – real-time data that’s sent to the cloud wirelessly where algorithms extrapolate such advanced information as whether someone is showing signs of dementia. The robots can also remind seniors about daily tasks and retaining important information such as phone number or names, all while tracking the senior’s progress or loss of memory over time.

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“Sometimes seniors won’t open up to a human but may open up to a robot.” He says advancements in artificial intelligence and humanoid designs enable the robots to go even further and have ‘conversations’ with seniors that keep aging minds sharp and fend off loneliness and isolation. “Sometimes seniors won’t open up to a human but may open up to a robot.”

A Kompai robot helping a senior with his medication.

In France, Vincent Dupourque is the founder of Robosoft that makes Kompaï robots that have the addition of a screen that works as a videoconference system for users to talk with healthcare providers (for a ‘tele consultation’) as well as friends and family. 

Traveling to the hospital can be a stressful experience, and frequent nurse visits are costly and time prohibitive. Using videoconferencing, a doctor can check in on seniors more frequently via the robot's screen, even controlling the machine remotely for simple tasks like taking vitals.

And much like Amazon’s popular Echo for the home, Kompaï robots talk, understand speech, remind people of meetings, keep track of shopping lists and play music. Its primary means of communication with people is speech, but with an additional touch screen that features simple icons for things like medication.

Dupourque says the robots use 3G and 4G WiFi networks to connect to the Internet and to stream real-time audio and video. He says future generations of Kompaï robots will be equipped with visual abilities.

“We did many experiments in Europe with seniors, at home and in nursing homes, and got a great reaction from the residents and caregivers. Once the robot is installed and works, it’s very simple. You say ‘go to the kitchen’, it goes to the kitchen.” 

Steve Crowe is the managing editor of the website Robotics Trends, and says, “What you’ll see more and more of is robotic devices that will socialize with seniors in their homes. There are lots of benefits to social interaction with the elderly. Socializing has huge mental benefits and gets seniors thinking positively. Robots can help do this.”

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Crowe says there have been a number of robots for the elderly in the past, especially in Japan, including the PARO therapeutic robot which has been around for more than a decade. The robots look like small stuffed harp seals and respond to petting with body and eye movements. They are an alternative to therapy animals to calm and de-stress the elderly. He says SoftBank makes a personal robot called Pepper with the power to read and respond to human emotions.

However, says Crowe, the enthusiasm and usefulness of robots will always have to be balanced with what humans already do. “Nothing will ever replace humans taking care of humans.”

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About Mary Gorges @mary_gorges

Mary Gorges is a seasoned journalist who has written for both print and television including The Huffington Post.