Caregiving is a tough job. So it’s always a good thing when caregivers can find a way to use technology to support them in their labor of love.

A medical alert system calls for help in emergencies. Video call apps like FaceTime enable long-distance caregivers to see their loved ones and easily keep in touch, while products such as Amazon’s Alexa can help seniors remain independent.  And as technology continues to expand and improve, caregivers will only have more supportive tools at their disposal.

One such recent technological development is robot caregivers.

The Future is Now

In 2004, a team of U.S. researchers built the world’s first robot caregiver, affectionately named Pearl. At the time, Pearl offered little practical application because she was merely a basic working prototype. What Pearl did offer, however, was a glimpse into the future of the possible roles robots could play in our lives as we age.

Well, the future is now, and theory has become reality. Advances in technology have enabled today’s robot caregivers to greatly surpass their 2004 predecessor. Believe it or not, there are a growing number of robot caregivers throughout the world that are truly improving the quality of life for older adults.

No Longer a Prototype

In an effort to meet the increasing needs of an aging population, Japan has looked to robot caregivers as the solution. Robear is a robot bear that helps seniors transfer from a seated position to a standing position and vice versa. Even those who may need to be completely lifted out of bed can rely on the strength of Robear.

But the benefits of robot caregivers aren’t limited to strictly the physical. Paro, a fluffy baby seal robot, offers therapeutic interaction for older adults with dementia and Alzheimer’s. A 2017 study showed that spending time with Paro can help seniors decrease loneliness, improve mood and even reduce the need for certain medications.

Some robots provide a more indirect form of caregiving. For example, the Care-o-bot is a robot butler used in assisted living facilities in Germany to fetch meals, pitch in with cleaning and even entertain residents with interactive games. Although these functions aren’t considered full-fledged caregiving activities, it is clear how the Care-o-bot can lighten a caregiver’s load by handling other pressing responsibilities.

Currently these robot caregivers are much more common in Japan and Europe than in the United States, but all signs point to the U.S. soon following in the footsteps of our overseas friends.

America’s Impending Caregiver Shortage

As Baby Boomers move into old age, America faces the same supply and demand problem that Japan has sought to address: not enough caregivers to meet the needs of seniors. Although non-medical caregiving is one of the fastest-growing jobs in America, it simply cannot keep up with the exploding demand  for these services.

This is where robot caregivers come in.

Generally the U.S. caregiving industry has been slow to put robot caregivers into action, but there are also some early adopters who are incorporating robot caregivers into their service offerings. One particular role that fits well for robot caregivers is the night shift for patients who require 24-hour care. Rather than pay a caregiver to stay overnight, it can be more affordable for both the patient and the caregiving agency to let the robot keep watch.

Robot caregivers have other benefits, too. Unlike their human counterparts, robot caregivers do not tire and aren’t susceptible to apathy or laziness. Emotions and bias can have a strong influence over how a human offers care, but robots can provide reliable and consistent care without ever letting their egos get in the way.

On the other hand, there are certain human qualities that a robot just can't emulate, such as empathy, a warm touch and meaningful connection. Humans are able to address an infinite number of personalities and situations while a robot is limited by its programming.

Despite the assistance robot caregivers seem to offer, one crucial question remains: would Americans embrace these robot caregivers?

Human or Robot?

A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in May of 2017 found that Americans have mixed feelings about robot caregivers:
  • 44 percent of respondents expressed enthusiasm for robot caregivers while 47 percent felt some level of worry
  • 41 percent of Americans said they would be interested in having a robot caregiver while 59 percent said they would not
  • 70 percent of those surveyed believe robot caregivers could help alleviate the worries that younger caregivers have about their aging loved ones
  • 64 percent of survey respondents worry that robot caregivers could actually make older adults feel lonelier
It would seem that for robot caregivers to gain acceptance, there should be a balance that optimizes their benefits while minimizing drawbacks. Perhaps robot caregivers are best implemented in conjunction with human caregivers instead of choosing one over the other. Whatever solution is best, Americans may need to open up to the possibilities of robot caregivers as they continue to play a larger part in caring for older adults.

Where do you stand? Would you prefer a robot caregiver or a human caregiver? Do you think there’s a place for both?

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Jason Biddle is the creator of The Helping Home, a website that publishes practical guides and resources to help older adults safely age in place at home.