Will Robotics and AI Be the Future of Elder Care?
Adults 65 and older constitute the fasting-growing age demographic in the United States. When it comes to elder care, this expanding population is facing a scarcity in people equipped to support them as they get older.
One estimate predicts a shortage of 151,000 paid direct care workers and 3.8 unpaid family caregivers by 2030, increasing to a gap of 355,000 paid workers with 11 million unpaid family caregivers by 2040.
Technological advancements in robotics and artificial intelligence may be opening the doors to new possibilities for supporting aging people.
Innovations for Aging in Place and Beyond
Many older adults wish to stay in their homes for as long as possible. According to AARP, 77 percent of adults over 50 want to continue residing in their homes for as long as they can.
Yet aging can lead to challenges with mobility and memory, such that older individuals often need additional assistance to live independently. Innovations in robotics and artificial intelligence may have the potential to provide support on this front, allowing seniors to continue living at home as they age.
Developments in robotics and AI could also fulfill unmet needs in nursing homes and assisted living, increasing efficiency, helping caregivers complete tasks, and reducing the number of staff required.
Meanwhile, artificial intelligence technologies may be able to help older adults manage health conditions from home as well as receive more efficient care in hospital settings.
Robots Helping Out in Health Care Facilities
How might robots help seniors in their homes, nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and beyond? Here is a glimpse into some emerging products:
- Panasonic has developed robotic exoskeletons designed to augment wearers’ abilities. This self-reliance support robot aims to help aging people perform everyday tasks, get in and out of bed, and sit on chairs or the toilet. The device could help individuals to perform physical tasks without assistance. Another portable exoskeleton, the APO, may be another type widely used one day in health care to help prevent falls in seniors.
- The TUG robot is already assisting in hospitals by delivering medicine, meals, supplies, and tests, freeing nursing staff to focus on tasks requiring more education and expertise.
- Social robots may prove another avenue for improving older adults’ mental health. Paro, a robotic seal, gives patients the benefits of pet therapy in health care settings and dementia wards where bringing live animals would be impractical. Similar to pet therapy, some individuals may find it easier to connect with robots than with people.
In the coming years, other kinds of socially assistive robots may become increasingly common in elder care. These types of robots engage with residents, provide entertainment and interaction, perform tasks, or help ensure safety:
- A socially assistive robot called Stevie, designed at Trinity College Dublin in Ireland, was tested at a Washington, D.C., nursing home from 2018 to 2020. Stevie entertained residents by telling jokes, playing bingo, and leading karaoke. It also provided reminiscence therapy using stories and music and could clean the facility with ultraviolet light. Recognizing commands like “help me,” the robot also can alert staff when residents needed assistance.
- Pepper, a humanoid robot funded by the Minnesota Department of Human Services, is similarly designed for socializing with residents. Able to recognize faces and read human emotions, Pepper is being introduced into nursing homes and other elder care facilities.
- Aeo, a robot created by Aeolus Robotics, interacts with residents socially. In addition to taking selfies with residents, it performs various essential functions, such as disinfecting surfaces, opening doors, pressing elevator buttons, and alerting staff when a resident has fallen or needs help.
Technology at Home
Older adults who live alone and people with disabilities can already use Personal Emergency Response Systems (PERS), also known as Medical Emergency Response Systems. These lightweight, battery-powered wearable devices allow individuals to call for help at the push of a button. For an installation fee and a monthly monitoring charge, users receive a device that contains a radio transmitter and a console that connects to a telephone. An emergency response center monitors incoming calls.
Technology using artificial intelligence, motion sensors, and camera monitors can also provide more comprehensive assistance and monitoring for seniors aging in place:
- CarePredict, a device worn on one’s dominant arm, tracks the wearer’s activity. When it detects deviations from behavioral patterns, it alerts a caregiver.
- With Envoy at Home, caregivers can place small sensors in their loved one’s home that alert them when their loved one could be at risk, such as when they leave home, exhibit disturbed sleep, visit the restroom frequently, or display inactivity.
- Integrating AI with smartphone usage is one more emerging area in senior care. A 2021 survey by Pew Research Center found that the majority of older adults use smartphones. Technology utilizing smartphones could make in-home health monitoring more accessible, particularly for homebound seniors who may postpone doctor visits or rely on telehealth.
- With AliveCor, older adults can monitor and track their heart activity on their phones. AliveCor is a wireless personal electrocardiogram (EKG) placed on the back of the smartphone. Using an application, individuals can view their EKG results and can share results with their cardiologists.
- Using the smartphone’s camera, artificial intelligence, and machine learning, Healthy.io makes medical assessments of urine by analyzing the concentration of chemical elements and chemical compounds in urine.
Healthy.io also empowers users to take photos of their wounds for a digitalized wound assessment, which can track healing and help doctors make recommendations.
- Luminostics is a diagnostic platform that attaches to a smartphone. It can recognize bacteria, viruses, proteins, and hormones from bodily fluids.
A Growing Market
Advances in medical technology are already helping health care providers manage, identify, and treat medical conditions in older adults.
According to Healthcare Dive, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authorized 91 AI- or machine-learning-enabled medical devices in 2022 alone. These include tools for radiology, cardiology, neurology, and more.
Going forward, AI may also become the norm for performing administrative tasks in clinical settings, giving health care workers more time to spend directly helping patients.