Automation and ageing
using robots to care for the elderly
It is no secret that Japan’s population is getting older. But it’s not alone in facing a “grey tsunami” of ageing.
“We will be reaching in the OECD, a stage in the next 20 years where there are more people over the age of 50 than there are under,” says Dr George Leeson, co-director of the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing.
By 2050, the number of people in the world aged over 60 is projected to more than double to about 2bn. By 2025, Japan will also face a shortage of about 380,000 caregivers for the elderly, according to the country’s Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare.
A quarter of Japanese are already aged over 65 and the way the country is dealing with its elderly population could offer pointers to how other societies can manage their own ageing.
One way in which Japan is leading the world is in employing robots to help deal with the issue. The country’s so-called care-bot market is expected to increase 25 times to $3.7bn by 2035, according to Japan’s New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organisation and the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.
One example of is Palro, a humanoid robot developed by technology giant Fujisoft. Standing just 40cm high, it is designed to improve fitness and stimulate brain function in the elderly by playing various games and quizzes with them. The robot is being used in more than 600 care homes across Japan.
Another popular robot is Paro, an ultra-realistic baby seal inspired by animal therapy. Packed with about 100 sensors, it can respond to temperature, touch, light and sounds. The idea is to help those with mental issues such as dementia feel more socially engaged. “Paro stimulates their brains through physical interaction - holding Paro stroking, hearing sounds and so on,” says Dr Takanori Shibata, the research scientist who developed the robot. About 5,000 Paro seals are in use in more than 30 countries.
But are robots such as Palro and Paro actually improving the lives of the elderly?
Paro is one of the most widely studied robots, and several trials with the seal have demonstrated an increase in motivation and social communication, improved mood and reduced stress in elderly people.
A 2015 study in Australia reported that for older people with dementia, Paro therapy had a moderate to large positive influence on their quality of life.
Yet in Western countries in particular, there is still a greater resistance to the idea of using robots to care for senior citizens than in Japan. These include ethical concerns and worries that it could reduce the elderly's opportunities for social contact, or simply that robots cannot provide genuine empathy.
A 2014 poll by the Pew Research Center found 65 per cent of respondents in the US agreed that it would be a “change for the worse” if robots became the primary caregivers for the sick and elderly.
But this perception could be changing. A 2016 YouGov survey in the UK found half of respondents were comfortable with robots performing domestic tasks for the elderly or the disabled.
“Just as we've accepted technologies into so many domains of our life over the last 20-30 years, I think slowly robotics in all shapes and forms will move into the area of care for older people,” he adds. As for the question of robots being unable to offer genuine emotional contact, “one could turn it round and say that robots will free up a lot of that human time to be able to spend more time providing that emotional support to older people”.
There is evidence that robots may gradually be winning over the ageing industry in Western markets. The Longlands care home in Oxford recently completed a three-month trial with Paro. The results were encouraging for residents and staff.
Angela Lindsay, activities co-ordinator at Longlands, says she gets “choked up” by the impact Paro has had. “People have become happier and in turn they're eating better and sleeping better so it's improved their wellbeing,” she says.
Freda Harris, a long-time resident, has had no qualms about stroking and talking to Paro. “Even when you talk to a robot, if he's had a lot of money and thought put into him, if you talk to him he'll respond to you,” says the 88-year-old. “I don't care who hears me. I mean, you've got to have somebody haven't you? Having somebody - even a robot that will react to you - I think that is wonderful really.”
Ultimately, the wider adoption of robots will require more clinical evidence and could come down to cash. Both Palro and Paro cost about $6,000 but could help save money through, for example, reduced medication costs. “There was a randomised control trial to evaluate Paro's therapeutic effect in the case of elderly people with dementia. With the Paro group, medication for anxiety dropped 30 per cent,” says Dr Shibata.
Narrowing things down to the bottom line may seem a little cold. But a nursing home in China has become so desperate to encourage visits to residents, it is offering cash vouchers to those who come and see their elderly parents on a regular basis.
Maybe a robotic solution is not quite so heartless after all.