Bob Hanley


“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?

This is a story of transformation that has forever changed how I feel about the power of lifelong learning. The story was told to me by one of our Clever Companion graduates, Jocelyn.

Jocelyn was first introduced to Bill Stewart, age 86, two years ago, in Victoria, by his daughter Carol. Carol was Bill’s only child and ever since his wife, Helen, passed away, he had become more dependent on her.

The problem was that Bill lived in Victoria and Carol lived in Calgary, with her husband and two kids. There was 450 miles separating them. It was clear Carol was devoted to her father, but there was only so much she could do. She had a busy life of her own. Her full-time career as a nurse and taking care of her family.

Carol felt responsible to look after her father, but often she felt powerless. She would call her father every Sunday, and many times she would finish the call in tears. Her Dad would tell her how lonely he was and how he missed her mother. Bill and Helen had been married for 54 years and had been inseparable. They had travelled throughout the world and were each other’s best friend. After a long bout with cancer, Helen died last year. Now he was on his own, in a house that was clearly too big for him, but for Bill, the house contained all the memories he had with Helen and he wasn’t about to sell and move to Calgary.

What made matters worse, was that Helen had always been the social one in their marriage. As Bill would say, Helen was social enough for both of them! Now he mostly puttered around the house, and the height of his social contact was chatting with the cashiers at the local grocery store.

As long as Carol could remember, her father had an interest in trains, all the different kinds, their routes, and how they had evolved over the years. He was also fascinated in World War II stories, especially about particular battles and how one general was better than another.

Carol decided that since she couldn’t be there are often as she would like, she would arrange for someone to meet with her father each week and engage him in conversation. She had heard about the Clever Companion program from a work colleague and she thought it might be worth a try. She arranged for Jocelyn to meet them at her dad’s home.

Jocelyn told me that Bill was soft spoken and polite, but she could tell he was guarded. As she does with many of her clients, she let Bill know what the Clever Companion program was about and suggested he try it for a couple of sessions and then decide for himself. He agreed.

By the time Jocelyn saw Bill the following week, Carol had already returned to Calgary. Jocelyn could tell Bill thought the world of his daughter and in spite of his reservations, he was willing to give the sessions a try.

That’s when things started to get interesting.

Jocelyn established an agreement with Bill that they would focus their first few sessions on trains. She wanted to know why Bill enjoyed trains so much and she wanted to hear all about his past experiences.

She could see the sparkle in Bill’s eyes as he told her about the various engine designs, train configurations and which ones were used in different regions of the world. She asked clarifying questions and when necessary had him elaborate on certain points.

Bill was in his element. He was fully present and engaged in the discussion and Jocelyn could see that he was becoming more energetic and animated as he told her the finer points on trains. It was especially good to see Bill go back in his memories to his earlier days, when he travelled by train throughout Europe.

Before they knew it, their first 90 minute Clever Companion session was over and Bill was amazed how fast it went by!

In preparation for their next session, Jocelyn gave Bill some homework to research certain topics related to trains and to be ready to present his findings. It was clear Bill was eager to do just that.

What started as their first session, soon expanded to many weeks, covering various topics of interest to Bill. He prided himself on doing his research and he would always be ready with his materials. He took his role very seriously.

Jocelyn kept Carol informed how things were going and Carol couldn’t believe how much her father had changed over the weeks. He told her how much he was enjoying his discussions with Jocelyn and how the sessions had re-kindled his interests.

Carol was just amazed how light and positive their Sunday calls had become and she no longer had that heavy feeling, worrying about her father. She had the peace of mind knowing that someone she trusted was seeing her father each week and if Jocelyn noticed anything untoward, she would be kept informed.

What a difference!

For Bill Stewart, lifelong learning and the social engagement of meeting with Jocelyn each week, was the catalyst to pull him out of his loneliness and isolation and give him a sense of purpose.

Imagine how many seniors, like Bill Stewart, are out there, who could use the same support?