Your dementia health care professional will one day be a fully automated robot, just not quite yet. But some caregivers and nursing staff are already getting significant assistance from robots and artificial intelligence in providing care for senior citizens. And this is a great thing!
Help is urgently needed
Right now about 5.5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease. As our population continues to age, this number will grow to almost 14 million by 2050. Meanwhile, the growth in numbers of professional care staff is not keeping up. There were 2.9 million registered nurses throughout the US in 2017, up only slightly from 2.7 million in 2014. Of these 2.9 million, the far majority works in hospitals, not in long-term care living facilities for the elderly where they are surely needed. Those that do work in such care homes encounter an incredibly demanding job. It often comes with long and unsocial hours, and workplaces that are frequently understaffed. Not surprisingly, the yearly workforce turnover in this field reaches over 35%. The use of robotics could cover some of the more routine tasks however, reducing the burden on caregivers and allowing them to spend more quality time engaging with patients.
Smart social robotics
Stevie can help. Stevie is a service robot prototype developed by researchers at Trinity College Dublin, who is designed to be highly social. While Stevie cannot wash or dress a person yet, Stevie can interact with users in a variety of ways, including conversation, writing, facial expressions, and hand gestures. Robotics like Stevie can also remind patients to take the right medication and health supplements at the right time in a way the patient can understand and respond to. Robots like Stevie can also ensure the patient is comfortable by controlling light and temperature inside the house, and even sound the alarm when something like a fall happens. Stevie will also connect patients with family or human caregivers when needed, and simply be a chat-companion for the patient. What’s more, Stevie is not alone: Ryan at the University of Denver, Harlie at the University of Queensland, and PARO in Japan are just three of the many robots currently being developed for patient care.
Smart predictive robotics
Importantly, by observing the patient, smart robots can detect signs of dementia onset and monitor its progression, just by evaluating in the way the user talks and behaves. This is crucial as early signs of dementia are not recognized and so dementia remains un-diagnosed in many people. Meanwhile having an early warning from a friend like Stevie could save thousands of dollars per patient due to well-prepared health care management. Average costs for basic services in an assisted living facility easily reach $45, 000 per year, but being able to prepare for this situation well in advance may allow the patient and their loved ones to search for, and take advantage of, existing financial aid programs before they are acutely necessary.
The technology to assist with elderly care is being developed at a staggering pace, and fully functional devices and prototypes are being tested and deployed right now. Assistive technology will help us take care of our loved ones more efficiently and, importantly, with more of a human touch.
Blog post by Dr Maarten Rotman, who serves on the Jonescientific Advisory Board. Dr Rotman, PhD, is a Neuroscientist currently working at Mayo Clinic, Florida.