“The future of aging is in robots.”

My heart sank when the presenter uttered those words.

Kathy and I attended a conference on aging in Toronto, Ontario in July 2018 and the keynote speaker was a recognized authority on incorporating robots in caring for our seniors.

Her position was that robots would become the “new caregiver” and replace the need for human caregivers.

Seniors would never have to feel lonely and isolated again, as long as they had robot XJ49-B in their home.

Based on how everyone in the audience was clapping and cheering, you would have thought they’d announced a cure for cancer.

To be clear, I love technology.

I have every type of gadget and I’m always curious about new innovations, but as I was listening to the presenter, I knew in my gut that there was something fundamentally flawed with believing that robots can replace the compassion and caring of human caregivers.

Here’s why I believe that:

  1. As human beings we are wired for human interaction and there is something magical that happens, energetically, when two people connect. Whether it be in words or in touch. The nuances of human behavior are so sophisticated, that it’s beyond the processing capability of machines.
  2. There is an inherent “power imbalance” between a robot and a senior. The robot is technically in charge and will determine when the senior eats, takes their medications or goes to bed. No matter what mood the senior is in, the robot will override the senior, based on its programming.
    Instead of empowering seniors, we are relegating them to be subservient to robots.
  3. There’s also a power imbalance based on the person who programs the robot. The programmer assumes they know what is best for the senior.

I wish I could remember the documentary I watched between a senior woman and a robot caregiver. It was an amazing film (when I find it I’ll post a link). The woman was clearly lonely and isolated. She had lost her husband of many years and she was struggling to get through her days. She was sad and depressed. The robot would follow her around and at meal time, it would badger her by thrusting a spoon toward her mouth. In the scene, the woman had no interest in eating, but the robot didn’t understand that. It kept trying to fulfill its programming. The next scene showed the woman lying in bed, in the dark, and when she opens her eyes, the robot’s face is hovering 2 inches above hers. She screams and the robot tells her it was checking her vital signs.

The documentary ends with the woman having a slow dance with the robot. It was a strange and poignant scene, but it beautifully illustrated what the woman really wanted. She wanted to be held and do what she had done, many times, with her husband. The robot was completely oblivious.

As we search for ways to make the experience of aging better for seniors, there will be a natural tendency to look for technological solutions. They are easy and convenient and once they are in place, they run themselves (at least until the batteries run out). But they don’t satisfy the most fundamental need we have as human beings. The need for compassion and connection with other human beings.

I’m all for labour-saving devices, but when it comes to caregiving and helping seniors cope with loneliness and isolation, I will take a human over a machine any day.

What do you think about this?

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2 Comments

  1. The Clever Companion program can be a powerful alternative to dependence on technology for Elder care. I think it was a brilliant idea to inspire retired teachers with this mission.

    • bob Reply

      Hi Willow, thanks for your feedback. We’re finding retired teachers are natural Clever Companions! Bob

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