Charlie and his minder (Dr. Bruce MacDonald, Auckland University)

I guess I’m a bit unusual in the sense that I don’t mind completing surveys, participating in focus groups and other methods of graduate school research.  A few months ago, I received an email from a graduate student at the University of Auckland asking if I would be interested in taking part in his HealthBots (robotics) PhD project.  Since I’m interested in the use of robots in aged care, I signed up.  On the agreed day, I navigated the University of Auckland’s large campus, found the Robotics Lab and was “introduced” to the grad student and his sidekick, Charlie.  I learned that they had already ventured out of the lab to a rest home in the city to test the residents’ attitudes towards and comfort with the newest member of their community.  Initially, uptake was slow and cautious, but apparently, it wasn’t long before residents were “communicating” with Charlie and found their interactions quite amusing.

Robots will probably play an integral part in future aged care and part of the study involved asking the rest home’s staff, residents and their families, how robots should be “employed.” “[Assisting with fall detection], calling for help, switching on and off appliances, cleaning, making phone calls to a doctor or nurse, lifting heavy things, monitoring the location of people, and reminders to take medications were among the top responsibilities voted by residents and their families. Staff also rated tasks such as measuring vital signs, general reminders, and locking the house at night as useful for robotic assistants.  In terms of appearance, residents and staff preferred a middle-aged robot with a clear-voice, but there was no overall preference for a male or female robot. The robot should not be too human-like and some residents expressed a desire for no face. The most preferred design was a silver robot of 1.25m height, so it was not too imposing, with wheels and a screen on the body,” according to a University of Auckland press release.

My job was to see if I could re-program the robot to undertake a new function.  With no programming experience, I found it a bit challenging, but the idea is to make it so easy that robots will be placed in rest homes and hospitals and staff will program them as their use changes.  This 3 year project is the brainchild of University of Auckland grad students and Korea’s Electronics and Telecommunications Research Institute (ETRI).  I have to say that I’m still not sure how I feel about relegating responsibilities to robots in aged care. My father-in-law is currently in a rest home and I think that he enjoys the constant comings and goings of staff into his room.  The social interaction with a nurse or personal support worker is an important part of rest home life. Although some of the robots I saw in the lab that day were very cute (one even had soft “skin”, real looking hair and could respond with appropriate facial expressions!), the idea of replacing staff with robots makes me a bit nervous.  I understand the shortage of trained staff and the growing number of residents in rest homes and the fact that robots would only be undertaking the more routine tasks, but ……

What are your thoughts about having a loved one’s care supplemented by robots? or your own care in the future?

Until next time,

Your Boomer Life Partners

References: http://www.auckland.ac.nz/uoa/home/template/news_item.jsp?cid=211710

Disclosure: The mention of organizations in this Boomer Life Today blog post were not solicited or paid for by companies or persons in New Zealand or abroad.

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