Can robots really help older people stay in their homes?

After my father passed away from Alzheimer’s, my mother lived alone in the family home for eight more years. Caring for my father had been hard, and she’d kept him at home longer than she should have, as is often the case. When it became impossible to care for him at home any longer, she finally moved him into an assisted living facility, where she diligently visited him every day. My mother went far beyond the call of duty, and happily had long term care insurance, but it sure would have been easier with some help.

Then, after my father had passed, my mother at age 85 began a new life as an independent woman who lived alone and took care of herself. She had a wide circle of friends including a significant other with whom she spoke daily, she still drove locally, was healthy right up until the end, and even had a ‘bucket list’ of things she was trying to accomplish. She didn’t get them all done, although she did go zip lining at age 87, dragging us ‘kids’ and grandkids along to try it too. It was both exhilarating and scary standing up on that platform 30 feet off the ground, but when my 87 year old mother jumped off, the rest of us had no choice but to hop off too.

Though she did well on her own, my mother still could have used a lot of help to make her life easier.

For one thing, this new, independent woman was adamant about remaining in the family home, on the family farm, which meant she was alone in an isolated environment. There were a number of good assisted living facilities nearby, which she periodically considered moving to, but that meant moving away from her local friends and losing some independence. Her classic quote, at age 91, was that she didn’t want to move to an assisted living facility because everyone there was so old.

It was only later, when we were settling her estate and getting the house ready for sale, that I realized she’d had more issues keeping up with the house and life in general than she’d let on. As she aged into her nineties her mind remained keen, but her eyesight and hearing began to fail, and her energy level gradually declined. Looking back on it, I felt guilty I hadn’t done more to help out, but then again, it hadn’t really been possible. Of her three children I lived closest to her, but it was still an eight hour drive to come visit. She lived in Pennsylvania and I live in Massachusetts, but my siblings were even further away—one in Colorado at a ski resort, and the other a geologist at a mine in the Congo.

Unfortunately this isn’t an unusual situation in today’s world: An elderly parent living alone in her longtime home, where the children were raised, maintaining her independence and “aging in place”, but no relatives nearby. When the children are no longer in the area, as is often the case, this situation is hard on all concerned. But there is help on the way, from a very unlikely source.

An article recently appeared in Business Insider predicting that in the near future robots will able to be caregivers for the elderly. Before I read the article the whole concept seemed outlandish, but after reading and then thinking about it, not only is it possible—it’s likely. In fact it will be a godsend for people who, like my mother, want to live their last years in familiar surroundings where they are comfortable, and not relocate to an assisted living facility. Although some of these facilities are wonderful, and at some point, for some people, are necessary, they aren’t for everyone. What about the senior who can still drive, has friends nearby they see often, and either doesn’t want to move, or can’t afford to move to a good assisted living facility? Strangely, robots may be the answer.

Before scoffing at the idea, ask yourself first “what is a robot?” It’s not that simple a question, because a robot doesn’t have to look like R2D2 or 3CPO from Star Wars. Amazon runs automated warehousing facilities across the US that ship us all those wonderful products we order online, and these warehouses are staffed mainly by robots. These ‘robots’ pick orders in the most efficient way possible, under the direction of a computer system, and put those orders on three mile long conveyors that pack and then ship those orders to customers. They do what they are directed to do quite efficiently, but don’t look one bit the way we imagine a robot should look. They look more like giant, orange hockey pucks.

Not what you'd expect robots to look like

So, robots don’t have to look like robots, and they have be directed to do something, but why is this gadget above a robot and a toaster isn’t? A toaster does something-- you tell it to turn bread into toast by pushing down a rectangular knob on the side, and it does it. It turns out that it isn’t all that easy to differentiate a robot from a toaster, but it’s possible…..a robot should be able to do complex tasks, be guided in those tasks by a computer, be able to interact with external things, and in some cases, look and move like a living creature.

On a practical level, a vacuum cleaner is an appliance but a Rhumba is a robotic vacuum cleaner (iRobot’s Rhumba is considered the first commercially successful robot). You wouldn’t send a toaster along on a mission to Mars… need a robot to move across the alien landscape, responding to commands and sending back information to earth. A toaster is just a one trick pony.

What did my mother struggle with, that a robot could have helped with? The answers are universal to many people aging in place. They have to do with help around the house, health concerns, safety issues, and companionship.

When our father was deep in Alzheimer’s, our mother had to sleep with one eye open to watch his every move. Imagine a robotic caregiver for him. It could inform my mother where he was in the house, sound an alarm if he went outside, provide tracking if he got lost, ensure he took his many medicines, and even provide a live stream video of what he was seeing/doing at any particular time. This robot could even be designed to look like a kitten or puppy, providing company for the patient while keeping him safe.

My mother also wouldn’t have been reluctant to ask the robot to help. Robots don’t have opinions, they never need breaks, they don’t sleep, and they never have bad days.

When we packed up the house before it sold, I brought all the medicines in her cupboard back to Massachusetts….to say there were duplicates and expired bottles is an understatement…..there were ten bottles of Advil, twenty year old cough drops, and a lot more that ended up back in Massachusetts. We now don’t need to buy OTC medicines anytime soon. The same thing happened with food, particularly in the freezer. I bought home a lot of meats and frozen dinners without really looking at them, and those almost universally ended up making our dogs very happy, having reached their expiration dates long, long ago.

This all happened because my mother couldn’t reach or see what was on the top shelves, or in the back of her multiple freezers, so the stuff just sat there while she purchased more. Imagine a robot that managed your inventory of medicines and food for you… an idea to warm Amazon’s cold, robotic heart…..this robot could have even renewed prescriptions and ordered food, medicines, or anything else online, to be delivered right to her house. Throw in a robotic arm, and this device could also reach up to the top shelf, and even open those pesky ‘child proof’ lids which drive seniors crazy. If it’s a strong robotic arm, it could ‘possibly’ twist off the metal tops that are vacuum sealed onto jars. This robot would really be handy. I might get one since right now everyone in the house asks me to open those jars.

Keeping everything in the house tidy was another chore where a robot would have helped, but it would have to be more proficient that one of those Rhumbas. Those really are just vacuums that move around randomly, and if they bump into something, they change course. In my mother’s house they’d have been stuck in corners and fallen down steps within minutes. However, it’s just a matter of time until there is a robot vacuum that behaves like a human does when vacuuming…….it plots it’s course, avoids obstacles, climbs up and down stairs, and empties its own waste into some other robotic device that compacts and then takes out the garbage. It’s not that far off, and as long as it’s simple to use, will be a ‘must have’ for older people living alone.

Think about washing clothes. Why just toss laundry into a hamper to then haul it out to a washing machine. One of these days they’ll be a hamper that takes itself to the washing machine, puts clothes in, dries them, and folds them.

My personal favorite use for a robot is security. Not only could a robot continually monitor the perimeter of your house, sending back a video of what it sees, and alerting you if something is unusual, but better yet is if it does see someone sneaking around the back of your house. Of course it could automatically call the police, but more fun would be if this particular robot was human looking but bigger….sort of like a terminator robot. Those burglars would sure be surprised when they break into an older person’s home and are greeted by a seven foot tall humanoid looking creature. You’d want to make sure the video stream was still on so you could see the reaction.

Is this dreaming? Sure it is, since these things don’t exist yet, but technology evolves incredibly fast, particularly when there is money to be made. Look how fast smartphones became omnipresent….they are everywhere, but ten years ago no one knew what they were. And in the process Apple became the most valuable company in the world.

It’s really not farfetched at all. If we can invent a robot to cruise around on the Martian surface picking up rocks and analyzing the atmosphere, we could sure make a robot that can clean up a house. A robot to wash and fold clothes? Of course we can….there are already machines that do each individual step. All that has to be done is link them together. Robotic arms to help out? They already exist. Machines that respond to voice commands? Already exists.

The only thing holding us back from caregiver robots is cost. That rover on Mars probably cost a billion dollars to build. However, there’s nothing like capitalism to bring down prices if there’s money to be made. Consider computers themselves………Twenty five years ago a mainframe computer took up the space of a small ranch house, required extensive cooling, cost millions of dollars, and required a large crew of people to maintain it. Today you can buy a PC for $400 that is thousands of times more powerful, can fit in a small bag, and doesn’t require anyone to maintain it. Robots are definitely in our future.

One last thought. What about human companionship? Maybe robots can substitute for real, human interaction, which if you believe those stories in the Daily Mail about sex robots certainly seems a possibility, but I think that robot caregivers can enhance human interaction in a real, positive way. That’s by giving seniors more free time so they can socialize, but more importantly, removing some of the worry that keeps them from traveling, either to destinations they’d like to visit, or to see relatives. In my case, my mother came to stay with us about 3X a year, but without fail she always wanted to return after a week because she worried about the house…..what about if there’s a leak. What about the mail? Who’ll do the grocery shopping? A robotically managed house will relieve those worries, allowing people like my mother to enjoy her time with her widely dispersed family without worrying whether she remembered to turn the iron off, and that’s a wonderful thing.






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