More than 65 million people in the US – that’s nearly a third of the country’s population – provide care to an ill, disabled, or senior loved one. The nation’s caregivers too often find themselves in a difficult and even unsustainable position. They love the person they care for and want the best for them, but the toll that caregiving takes makes it hard to provide the level of care needed while still living their own lives.
Caregivers therefore feel guilty for not being willing or able to give more, while also stretched thin by the amount of work they’re doing already. It’s a complicated situation that’s only set to get worse as the senior population grows in the coming years and the need for caregiving rises.
A number of solutions are rising to help the need, from the growth in the home health care industry to more assisted living facilities opening up. One of the more interesting and high-tech solutions that may begin coming into play in the near future is robot caregivers.
The Benefits of Robot Caregivers
The idea of a robot caregiver sounds very sci-fi, and the reality may not look much like what you’re probably picturing – a humanoid robot that does everything a human caregiver does now (if that is in our future, it’s unlikely to be the case for a very long time). Instead, we’re talking about machines programmed to pick up some of the tasks humans do now, like giving a senior their pills a the right time of day or helping them in and out of bed.
The benefits that robots can bring to caregiving are many and significant:
- They won’t get tired. Human caregivers often have a job they’re expected to be at for 40 hours a week, then end up providing caregiving help for another 20. That doesn’t leave much time left over for other activities or hobbies if they still want to get in a good night’s sleep. Often that means they don’t sleep as much as they should. They end up spending a lot of time worn out, which makes them a worse caregiver and miserable.Robots don’t need sleep. As long as you keep them properly charged, they can work as many hours a day as you need them to.
- They don’t experience stress. Stress starts to feel like a common part of every day life for overwhelmed caregivers. There’s so much to do, and you never feel like you get a break. Like a lack of sleep, stress also comes with a lot of serious health risks.Minimizing stress is really hard for humans to do effectively when there are pressing responsibilities to deal with. For robots, it would be entirely a non-issue.
- They don’t feel awkward. Many common caregiving tasks involve situations people find awkward. Having to bathe your aging parent or help them go to the bathroom can feel embarrassing for both of you. Robots don’t get embarrassed and being bathed by a robot won’t give a senior the same feelings of awkwardness or shame they may have with another person.
- They’ll never forget which meds to give when. Humans are fallible and our brains don’t conveniently become less fallible for things that have higher stakes, like making sure a loved one gets the right meds at the right time. As seniors get older and their needs get more complicated, medication schedules become increasingly hard to keep up with – for human brains anyway. Robots can be programmed with all the information they need and trusted to keep it all straight.
- They won’t have other jobs and relationships to balance with caregiving. Taking care of a loved one wouldn’t necessarily be that hard to manage if a person had no other life responsibilities to deal with. But most family caregivers also have jobs, kids, spouses, friends, hobbies, volunteer positions – you know, all those pesky things all humans have to fit into the one life we have. Trying to provide frequent caregiving on top of all those things is what ultimately makes it so unsustainable and unmanageable for a lot of people.A robot caregiver would have one purpose in life. They don’t need friends and hobbies; they’d only need to do what they’re programmed to do.
Robot caregivers won’t do away with the need for family loved ones to show up and care. Seniors will never stop needing human love. But they can potentially supplement the care loved ones provide and take a lot off of the plates of overwhelmed family caregivers.
How Close Are We to Having Robot Caregivers?
Several types of robot caregivers have already been developed. While most of them aren’t widely available to consumers yet, the technology is close enough to ready that families may be able to see robots become a part of caregiving as soon as within the next few years.
Mobiserv is a European research project developing three types of technology that will function together to provide seniors care as they age in place:
- Smart clothes that monitor vital signs, sleeping patterns, and potential problems like falls.
- Smart home technology that can detect activity patterns that provide information on a senior’s activity.
- And a robot caregiver that stays in sync with the other types of tech to monitor a person’s well being and respond accordingly. They call it a “social companion robot.” It has wheels so it can move around and the tech to communicate with seniors both with speech and through a visual touchscreen.
These three technologies together add up to a lot of information the robot can use to track its patient’s needs and safety in order to provide the right type of care needed at the right time.
Like Mobiserv, GiraffPlus uses sensors around the home to track a senior’s movement and vital signs in order to help determine their needs day by day. In the event of an emergency, the robot allows seniors to contact their doctors via a video call technology similar to Skype. Seniors can use that same technology to contact friends and family and talk to them through the robot as well.
The Robear is a robot caregiver developed in Japan and designed to resemble a bear. It’s, as you’d expect, adorable. But more importantly, it can help seniors with the physical tasks that are often difficult for their human loved ones, like when they need assistance standing up or getting out of bed. Right now, it’s expensive technology that weighs too much for practical use, but the researchers behind Robear are working on improving the tech and reducing its weight in order to start bringing it into hospitals and homes in the future.
The Care-O-bot looks very much like something out of a sci-fi movie and has a lot of the skills and capabilities its movie forebears had. These robots can move around a home, lift and place things, and have a touchscreen users can use to communicate what they want it to do. This robot wasn’t designed with seniors top of mind, it’s meant more as the kind of robot servant people have been dreaming of for years. But many of its capabilities could lend themselves well to the needs of seniors. While technically, a Care-O-bot can be bought by consumers today, the price tag is high enough to put it out of reach for just about everyone but businesses or the especially wealthy.
So, in one sense, robot caregivers are already here! But for pretty much every senior and caregiver that could use their help, they’re still far out of reach. Nonetheless, the researchers on all these projects (and likely a number of projects that haven’t even gotten started yet) are actively working to create versions of these robot caregivers that will be more affordable and accessible to the families that need them most. Keep an eye out, and you may have your very own robot caregiver in a few years.