Robots to care for the elderly?

  • To take on some of the burden of providing care and support for the rising number of elderly people scientists are suggesting robots to fulfil this role.

    The life expectancy of people today is at the highest it has ever been. In Japan, where the world's oldest population lives, £14.3m has been allocated in the 2013 budget to develop robots to help with care.

    Toyota is developing devices which will help elderly people with mobility support and Toli Corp has created a mat with a wireless sensor that can track and deliver feedback if an elderly person is moving around, reports the BBC. 50's Robot 2

    A special root with 24 fingers has been developed to help people with hair washing and can give head massages too. This idea of robotics to care for elderly is already being trialled in many places such as Singapore and Salford.

    The Spatio-Temporal Repreentation and Activities for Cognitive Control in Long-term Scenarios, also known as the Strands project, at the University of Birmingham has received £6.69m in funding from the European Commission.

    In May the Strands robot will begin trial with an Austrian care provider and with start with simple things such as checking fire doors remain unblocked and defibrillators are always present and in the correct place.

    "We're trying to free up more of the staff time," says Dr Nick Hawes. "One of the biggest complaints of care home staff members is that they don't spend enough time doing the human interaction and the caring part. We're looking at porter-type tasks and assistance tasks. If the robot could fetch the tray of medicine while the human talks to the residents instead of getting the tray and just dishing out the medicine because they're short on time, it increases interaction."

    A project in Salford is creating robots that "can help supervise people 24 hours a day", according to researcher Antonio Espingardeiro.

    Age UK says that many older people consider the television their main form of company and has begun a befriending service where people volunteer to go and visit and talk to lonely people. Whilst many believe these robots will be able to give elderly people companionship, Age UK believe the service they provide will make a bigger difference than robots can.

    "There is nothing wrong with making smarter use of technology to help people manage health conditions and possibly stay independent for longer," says Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK.

    "However, it is always important to ensure technology is only used where it delivers real benefits and to recognise that it is no substitute for the human touch."

    "Some robotic device in a lonely person's life might improve it," says Dr Hawes. "But that shouldn't disoblige society from finding new ways to give them human contact. The idea that we can say, 'Hey, let's give them a robot and we don't have to worry any more' is the scrapheap approach."

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