We often wonder who will take care of us once we become old. Will our children or grandkids be there for us? Some of us might feel guilty asking for our kids to stay in the same household as us to help us bathe or prepare food once we become way too old to do these kinds of tasks ourselves. After all, they’ve got to live their own lives don’t they? What would you do if you were planning on moving to another continent, ready to start your adulthood but suddenly be tasked to live with your demented grandparents?

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Well, researchers in Finland seem to have come up with a solution! A recent study proposes that robots would operate in elderly homes, and take care of their every needs and tasks. Sort of like that one robot in a Disney movie. It’s a wild proposition, I know, but doesn’t it sort of make sense?

Big Hero 6 -aiheiset jutut - Episodi.fi

While we could just hire people to take care of us, alot of elderly people feel embarrased or even violated by having another human help them do discomforting tasks such as helping going for a loo or bath. Furthermore, an elderly person might feel that they have lost their sense of autonomy (a sense of self capability). If you were over 80 years old, you wouldn’t want to be treated as an infant learning to potty would you?

So how exactly could robots help elderly people? Well for starters, there can be assigned logistics robots that deliver food directly to residents of the elderly home building, sort of like a pizza delivering robot! There are some robots already in trials being used to help mobility deficient individuals bathe. One such robot named Poseidon, has received extensive positive reviews as referenced in the report. The report also explores how a mobility robot called Care-O-bot 4, which was designed in Germany and is currently being studied in Finland, has shown improved mobility on residents who used it. But perhaps the most exciting or scary robot (depending if you are a terminator fan or not) is the proposed exoskeleton robot. Yes, researches have seriously considered using an exoskeleton to improve an elderly persons mobility.

This robotic exoskeleton stops old people falling over | WIRED UKExamples of exoskeletons that were shown to participants to introduce... | Download Scientific Diagram

An exoskeleton would be built with mechanisms reminiscent of the human anatomy; joints and links at similar places as your own body. Once turned on, a battery powering the whole contraption would allow limb movement. The research report even considers elederly home staff using an exoskeleton to lift heavy objects or even the residents themselves into bed.

Now if you’re internally screaming “that’s crazy!” you’re not alone. Infact researchers have noted some cons for using an exoskeleton and even robots in general. For starters, these kinds of robots can be quite costly. Not only that, but using these kinds of assisted robotic mechanisms can be difficult to operate for elderly people and may require more effort compared to simply training and prolonging the motor skills left of patients who need such devices in the first place.

While it’s an interesting concept, and conceptually may make sense to a certain degree, researchers have noted in the study that they received mixed results and opinions from those who used some of these robots as part of their “assisted living”. Some elderly reported that they were able to worry less about their daily tasks and instead use the newly available free time to do things that mattered to them most such as socializing. Others however reported that even while receiving help from “non-human robots”, they still felt like they didn’t posses enough personal autonomy. 

These robots would likely require some more polishing and improvement to be universally deemed to improve elderly people’s quality of life. Or perhaps we just aren’t ready yet to hand over our most important tasks to robots and still prefer actual humans with emotions and empathy to assist us in our final bittersweet years. 

Research article referenced: Pirhonen , J P T , Melkas , H , Laitinen , A & Pekkarinen , S 2020 , ‘ Could robots strengthen the sense of autonomy of older people residing in assisted living facilities?—A future-oriented study ‘ , Ethics and Information Technology , vol. 22 , no. 2 , pp. 151-162 . https://doi.org/10.1007/s10676-019-09524-z

Picture sources: Elderly people in a home: https://cdn2.hubspot.net/hubfs/3863847/Info%20session%20web%20page-1.jpg

Big Hero 6: https://lumiere-a.akamaihd.net/v1/images/1-2_afc05d80.jpeg?region=0,653,1382,779&width=768

Exoskeleton: https://media.wired.co.uk/photos/606da025fd9831b13e4471d2/master/w_1600,c_limit/S163109.jpghttps://www.researchgate.net/profile/Merel-Jung/publication/333624077/figure/fig1/AS:766427443236866@1559741950486/Examples-of-exoskeletons-that-were-shown-to-participants-to-introduce-the-technology.ppm