Robotics Might Be the Future of Elder Care

robotfrankIn the 2012 indie film Robot and Frank, James Marsden plays a man who purchases a domestic robot for his aging father, played by Frank Langella — who promptly uses it to restart his old cat burglar business.

According to a recent article in the MIT Technology Review, the future in Robot and Frank may not be that far off (minus the cat burglary part, of course). In fact, seniors may be taking advantage of home-help robots in only a couple of decades.

More and more robotics companies are gearing their research toward products for the elder care market. There’s a degree of urgency to this shift. The number of people in the U.S. over age 65 and older is expected to double within the next 30 years, and the number of older adults with mental disorders like depression, anxiety and dementia is expected to double as soon as 2030.

Many experts believe that some care services may just have to become automated to deal with the huge demand on elder care.

“God help us if we don’t figure it out,” said iRobot CEO Colin Angle during the RoboBusiness robotics conference in Boston this month.

Angle’s company already produces several robotic products that assist the elderly, including the Roomba. It won’t be helping an aging Frank Langella steal jewelry anytime soon, but it does lighten the burden of home cleaning for elderly or aging users.

“The Roomba is the most successful elder-care robot ever created,” Angle said at the conference. “It helps people who can’t push a vacuum maintain a sense of control over the environment they live in.”

There are plenty of other programs and companies looking to create the automated elder care services of the future. A research project funded by the European Union is putting health and activity sensors in the homes of senior citizens. Relatives and doctors can use mobile telepresence robots with videoconferencing technology to check in on seniors as well.

Nursing homes across the world have even been providing lonely residents with robotic stuffed seals called Paro, which respond to petting and get upset if ignored or dropped. Paro robots have become prolific enough that The Simpsons aired an episode spoofing them.

“In this industry, technology advances have made huge strides in helping manage the care and safety of our clients, which is the most critical driving factor of our business,” says Laurie Malone, Managing Partner/CEO, Golden Heart Senior Care. “Clients want to stay in their homes as long as possible and technology, coupled with the critical human component is the goal for all of us. Personal intervention with our clients is the hallmark and no robot can replace that. Each client has differing needs and progressive issues that only a trained professional can bring.”

The elder care robots of the future have nearly infinite potential to provide companionship, entertainment, mobility and independence to a community in need, but there are still a few hurdles to jump. Robots are still not as user-friendly as they could be, which will put them at a major disadvantage with an older market.

Still, technology tends to leap forward rather than crawl, so it may not be long until the sci-fi elements of Robot and Frank become reality.

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