Are robots the answer to elderly loneliness?

Are robots the answer to elderly loneliness?

3 minute read

Robots were first created to free us from the drudgery of repetitive manual labor. The latest generation are increasingly being used to supplement humans caring for lonely seniors.

Robot & Frank, a 2012 science-fiction comedy drama, tells the story of a retired cat burglar living alone and dealing with dementia. His son, who doesn't want to visit too often, buys Frank a robot carer.

The idea was that the robot would make Frank follow a structured daily routine and undertake therapeutic activities like gardening. Initially reluctant to have a minder, Frank soon realizes his more dexterous mechanical companion can help him reactivate his career as a burglar.

The movie explores the impact of dementia on the family; how well robots can substitute for human carers, and whether humans and machines develop genuine emotional attachments.

Aging population

These questions are very relevant today as rising longevity is leading to an ever-increasing proportion of elderly people. The U.N. forecasts that one in six people in the world will be over age 65 (16%) by 2050. This is leading to a 'demographic time bomb' with a growing shortage of working age people to provide the varying levels of care needed by sections of the elderly population. Having fewer family members visiting regularly can also add to a sense of isolation and loneliness.

With 25% of the population aged 65 or older, Japan is at the forefront of phenomenon and robots are becoming common in both institutions for the elderly and private homes.

Paro the robot seal

Paro, for example, is a therapeutic robotic seal developed in Japan for use in hospitals and nursing homes, particularly for people with dementia. Paro has an array of sensors (tactile, light, audition, temperature, and posture) that enables it to respond to its name and touch with facial expressions and sounds.

Studies suggest such robot pets can reduce stress in patients and caregivers, stimulate interaction and improve socialization. Paro is active in 60 elderly care facilities in Japan and in one of these the seal is part of a team of different 20 carebots.

The phenomenon has spread around the world. Aside from mechanical cuddly animals, semi-humanoid robots, that look similar Frank's minder, have been tested in hospitals and nursing homes in the US, the UK and France. Examples include American-build Rudy, Japanese-creation Pepper and Zoro, a child-sized bot built by a Belgian company.

Some residents developed an emotional attachment for Zoro when it was introduced to a nursing home near Paris, according to a 2018 report in The New York Times. Residents held the robot as if it was a baby, and kissed it on the forehead. Hidden from sight, an operator used a laptop to control Zoro's movement and speech.

Ethical questions

Is it acceptable that some people, particularly care home residents with dementia, don't seem to be aware that their 'pets' are machines? Indeed, they may be actively encouraged to accept that the pet or semi-humanoid robot is alive. This can potentially cause further confusion for residents who are already trying to separate reality from fantasy.

And what of the other residents who understand the pets are machines: are we telling them that while they may feel lonely they are no longer entitled to human company? The current generation of robots are not capable of providing medical care or physical support in the way that a trained professional person can.

The best answer at the moment is that robots can supplement but not replace human care: they can help to calm anxiety and isolation , and stimulate movement — watch Rudy and Pepper invite people to dance on YouTube.