I have had a blog post brewing about robot carers for the elderly for a while. Two projects that they showcased on the BBCs Horizon Longitude prize programme were dementia related assistive technologies. One was a robot carer. The other was a sensor driven kitchen which guided and reassured. I found it concerning that we were willing to let our weakest citizens try out new methods of automated care. Not to mention that it sounded neglectful. Like we didn’t value our older citizens and just wanted the easiest way to cope with them. That was the trigger and I’ve mulling it over since then.
Before I continue it is important to state my contextual shifts. I was thinking about it in the context of my Mum and how she would have adjusted to a robot’s presence. Now I’m thinking about myself, and my future as well. I was also comparing a robot carer against a friendly and familiar carer. I’m now considering the other alternatives - no carer, abusive carer or exhausted carer. This article made me reassess my position. You should read it in full, but I’ve quoted from it below.
When talking about one of her patients Louise Aronson says:
I have little to offer for the two conditions that dominate her days: loneliness and disability. She has a well-meaning, troubled daughter in a faraway state, a caregiver who comes twice a week, a friend who checks in on her periodically, and she gets regular calls from volunteers with the Friendship Line. It's not enough. Like most older adults, she doesn't want to be "locked up in one of those homes." What she needs is someone who is always there, who can help with everyday tasks, who will listen and smile. What she needs is a robot caregiver. That may sound like an oxymoron. In an ideal world, it would be: Each of us would have at least one kind and fully capable human caregiver to meet our physical and emotional needs as we age. But most of us do not live in an ideal world, and a reliable robot may be better than an unreliable or abusive person, or than no one at all.
And that’s the thing. Ideal care isn’t available to everyone. So I think I’d rather be safe and in a familiar environment. I’m not thinking of it as a complete replacement for human care and interaction. But an addition. Something to help keep the person engaged and stimulated. It shouldn’t be too hard to program the caring robot with knowledge about the person behind the disease. What did they enjoy doing? Do they like to do crosswords and could it help them with one? Could it talk through photographs, or discuss art with them? And even in that ideal world, it could that free up a carer to focus on something else for a time.
And then, because my patient loves to read but her eyesight is failing, the caregiver robot would offer to read to her. Or maybe it would provide her with a large-print electronic display of a book, the lighting just right for her weakened eyes. After a while the robot would say, "I wonder whether we should take a break from reading now and get you dressed. Your daughter's coming to visit today."
Somehow, it doesn’t feel quite so neglectful in this context.