Will robots be the solution to assisted living?

One of the coming great challenges of senior care is facilitating assisted living, according to experts. The so-called Baby Boomer generation that is now entering retirement age lives longer, expects the world from its twilight years, and insists on staying independent for as long as possible. Most Boomers don’t even think about going out quietly, withering away in homes that offer little more than warehousing. Instead, they want to stay active and engaged until the very end, and they welcome all the help they can get to achieve that goal. And when they cannot do it anymore on their own, futuristic technology like robots for personal use may just be the ticket.

If you have seen the 2012 movie “Robot & Frank,” you already had a — albeit comical — glimpse of how the future of assisted living might look like. In a nutshell, the story is about the “relationship” between an elderly gentleman (played by Frank Langella), who just retired from a lifetime career as a cat burglar, and a humanoid robot given to him by his children as a home caretaker. Of course, the film’s particular angle on robotic technology is not to be taken too seriously. But the fact is that intelligent machines are progressively affecting every aspect of life as we know it, and will do so much more in coming years.

On a recent trip to Tokyo, I had the chance to see for myself how far we have already moved in that direction. Here, robots designed for personal assistance are readily available in department stores, just like any other household appliances. Although, many of the existing models have only limited capabilities like finding information on the Internet or compiling music playlists, or even less useful features like responding with a cute smile and offering a handshake when approached, it is clear that these creatures of our own making will eventually be the ones we partner up with on countless tasks, both at work and in our homes.

Surprisingly, older folks like Frank, the main character in the movie, seem to embrace robotic technology for personal use the fastest. As recently reported in the New York Times, retirees count as early adopters of cutting-edge innovations designed to function in home environments. In fact, according to the report, retirement communities are serving as preferred testing grounds for developers of robotic soft- and hardware for these purposes.

Also fascinating is how quickly people seem to get emotionally attached to their robotic companions once they become used to their presence. There is great promise in this social, almost interpersonal dimension between humans and humanoid machines. It could become even more pronounced than the relationship with computers or smart phones many of us have now.

While computer technology has traditionally been focusing on inventing ever-more efficient programs and devices, not enough has been done to delight consumers and give them tools that enhance the quality of their everyday lives. Personal robotics could make up for much of that neglect, experts quoted in the article suggest.

We can expect that automation will eventually encompass or at least touch on everything that surrounds us, and much of that is already happening. And it does, and will increasingly, determine how well we fare in terms of health and aging.

When we consider the Baby Boomers approaching old age in unprecedented numbers, we cannot limit our attention to issues of physical and mental decline, but must also find solutions for other pressing matters related to aging such as how to keep people from unnecessarily losing their independence or leaving them socially isolated. Again, technology that can help prevent such losses should be welcomed.

At this point in time, we cannot tell how much care for the elderly can be automated, and to what extent that would even be desirable. We do know, however, that technological advances can be made useful to meet the tremendous needs that are awaiting us. Robots, as we are imagining them now, may not be the entire solution – but perhaps a crucial part of it.

TIMI GUSTAFSON, a registered dietitian, health counselor, newspaper columnist, and blogger. She’s the author of “The Healthy Diner — How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun.” Her website is www.timigustafson.com.