Can robots play in role as a mobility aid for the elderly?

The idea may seem like something from a sci-fi novel but – with an estimated 1.5 billion people over the age of 65 by the year 2050 – it certainly is time for imaginative thinking.

Mobility aid for the elderly - from robots?
Robots are being developed to act as a mobility aid for the elderly and assist in future care

Some scientists are now suggesting that robots could be the future in caring for the elderly and plans are forming to use robotic devices as personal care aids.

Mobility Aid?

There are many schemes in development worldwide, working towards the perfect caring robot that would also act as a mobility aid for the elderly.

Some developers also claim robots could help provide companionship for people who living alone.  Others argue equally strongly that machines are no replacement for human contact.

One futuristic design features a robot with 24 fingers, aimed at people with limited use of their arms.  Its claimed this could, for example, help people with reduced mobility to wash their hair.

The University of Birmingham has received £6.7 million in funding from the European Commission to develop an assistance robot.

In May, the Birmingham Bot will begin its trial with an Austrian care company, when it will be undertaking simple tasks such as checking fire doors aren’t blocked and defibrillators are kept in the right place.  Project bosses say that, instead of being used as a personal mobility aid, its hoped that the new generation robots could enable care homes to automate regular tasks and so free up more time for staff to spend chatting with residents.

The university’s Dr Nick Hawes says: “One of the biggest complaints of care home staff is that they don’t spend enough time doing the human interaction and caring part.”

Dr Hawkes says that the Birmingham project will look at “porter-type” tasks.  The argument is that, If a robot can fetch the tray of medicine, staff will have more time to stay with the resident, increasing human interaction.  Understandably, others fear that these ideas could be more about saving on staff costs, leaving elderly people with more automated services and even less human interaction.

Another robotics project, based in Salford, near Manchester, aims to create robots with the ability to help supervise people 24 hours a day.  The machines will also be programmed with speech therapy and object recognition, to help people with dementia.

Human Interaction

Cerainly, not everyone agrees with the technological advances in relation to elderly care.  Many charities are campaigning loudly for more human interaction with elderly people.

Age UK revealed recently that half of all older people consider the television as their main form of company.  To combat this, Age UK has set up a befriending service, where volunteers can spend time with people who are lonely.

Age UK director, Caroline Abrahams, comments: “There’s nothing wrong with making smarter use of technology to help older people manage health conditions and possibly stay independent for longer.”

“However, it’s always important to ensure technology is only used where it delivers real benefits and to recognise that it’s no substitute for the human touch.”

Is robot the ideal mobility aid?  Do you think robots are a good idea for the future care of the elderly?  We’d love to hear your thoughts!

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