Uneasy about robots caring for the elderly? Read this

The New York Times Bits blog has one of the better articles I’ve read about caregiver robots for the elderly. The aging population plus fewer family caregivers, fewer available human aides and relentless advances in technology are making the routine use of robotic assistants for the elderly all but inevitable.

One way or another we should expect to see robots enter the home to take care of the elderly. Certain tasks are less controversial. For example, a robot that clears dishes from the table, loads them in the dishwasher and then unloads them when they’re done isn’t that big a deal. That’s only a step or two beyond what a dishwasher does today. But even there you encounter issues of learned helplessness. If the robot can do it, why make the effort, even if effort is what provides purpose in life and staves off physical and cognitive decline?

Then there will be robots that keep track of medications and encourage people to take them on time. Those are probably good, even for non-elderly patients, because they could help boost adherence, reduce medication administration errors, and order refills in a timely manner.

It gets a little spooky when we start thinking about robots that do personal tasks, such as giving baths. And what about robots that act human to engage elders in conversation? It’s pretty clear that a lot of patients develop a relationship with such creatures, especially if they are dressed up like humans or have a human voice. On the one hand that’s a great relief to a remotely located adult son or daughter. The parent will have someone to talk to all day who keeps his/her patience and has plenty of time. But there can be feelings of guilt, too, as the son or daughter realizes they’ve delegated something critical to a machine and may even be unwittingly tricking their parent into thinking it’s human.

Things get even dicier when robots are used to monitor activities and behavior, which may lead to resentment by the parent and loss of autonomy.

I think we’ll just need to get used to these issues and work through them and that if we do so we can get to a generally happier place. The typical model I’ve seen of elders spending their last years accompanied by hired caregivers can sometimes be wonderful, but often has serious downsides.

If and when I get old and am on my own, I’ll be ready for my robot or robots.

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