Anne Gibson

Anne Gibson is the Property editor of the NZ Herald

Robots on the march into retirement homes

As caring for a rising population of elderly people — some with dementia — becomes an increasing problem, novel options are being tested

The Paro baby-seal robot has fur, big appealing eyes and can interact with humans. Photo / Getty Images
The Paro baby-seal robot has fur, big appealing eyes and can interact with humans. Photo / Getty Images

Armies of robots escorting retirement village residents, reminding them to take medication, monitoring blood pressure and behaving like electronic friends - their role in caring for New Zealand's elderly arose at this week's Retirement Villages Association annual conference.

Some industry leaders see a place for them, perhaps in menial functions such as lifting people out of beds, but others have reservations.

A Washington-based executive of the International Association of Homes and Services for the Ageing, Katrinka Sloan, told of robots' expanding role in the United States, including mini-robot baby fur-seal pets with black eyes and whiskers, developed to comfort the elderly as well as person-sized robots gliding around villages.

"I've seen a companion robot walking down a hall with an older woman who was frail, who had a cane," Sloan said.

"The robot was alongside and she could take the robot's arm or the robot could put his - or her or whatever - hand out for comfort

"Robots can be used for stability or as a companion. They have heads and eyes and talk."

Some were so dextrous that they could separate the two halves of an American Oreo cookie - a cream-filled biscuit.

Baby fur seal robots gave all the benefits of pets but without costs such as food.

People could still cuddle such light objects, just like cats.

Sloan cited a multi-generational retirement mini-city at Chongquing in southwest China.

"Segregating the elderly simply goes against the grain of their culture," she told the conference, saying communities were being created not just for the elderly but for their families too.

She also cited a dementia village called de Hogeweyk in the small town of Weesp in Holland, which was built so roaming is safe.

"From one perspective it looks like a fortress - a solid display of apartments and buildings, closed to the outside world with gates and security fences.

"Inside, however, it is a self-contained world - restaurants, cafes, a supermarket, gardens, walkways and more."

In Switzerland, a similar village was developed to mimic life in the 1950s "tapping the long-term memories that many with dementia retain, while losing track of the short term".

In New Zealand, Ryman Healthcare managing director Simon Challies prefers innovations like Australia's Webstercare software and dispensary systems to help the 3000 nursing and care staff working in Ryman villages, particularly those in its rest and nursing homes, which have a total of about 2700 beds.

Selwyn Foundation resident Tom Pallas with a health-checker robot - one of several tested at the foundation's two homes in Auckland.
Selwyn Foundation resident Tom Pallas with a health-checker robot - one of several tested at the foundation's two homes in Auckland.


"We're more focused on compassion," he said when asked about robots. "We're doing other things, like a push on electronic innovation which is about new tools and more efficiency."

Auckland's Selwyn Village at Point Chevalier and Selwyn Heights at Hillsborough tested robots in a venture with Auckland University.

Janice Sanders, the communications manager for the Selwyn Foundation which owns and operates the villages, said about 31 robots were at Point Chevalier from 2008 until 2012.

"Obviously, robots would never replace personal care which would always be done by humans," she said. "But robots may provide stimulating and interactive activities which could help relieve loneliness. Psychological benefits were the focus of studies for the university."

Only one fur seal robot, Bright Eyes, was at the village. He was a Paro robot, Sanders said, developed by leading Japanese automation pioneer the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology.

The institute waxes enthusiastic about its Paro baby fur seal robots and their five types of sensors ...

"Tactile, light, audition, temperature, and posture sensors, with which it can perceive people and its environment. With the light sensor, Paro can recognise light and dark. He feels being stroked and beaten by tactile sensor, or being held by the posture sensor. Paro can also recognise the direction of voice and words such as its name, greetings, and praise with its audio sensor

"If you stroke it, Paro will remember your previous action and try to repeat that action to be stroked. If you hit it, Paro remembers its previous action and tries not to do that action."

Sloan warned of being in the midst of the biggest demographic change societies had faced with Alzheimer's and related dementias at epidemic proportions.

"The statistics are staggering. As nations, we are unprepared for the future that awaits us, financially, infrastructure-wise and socially."

Read the full speech here:

- NZ Herald

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