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While you probably won’t see a fleet of robots staffing an independent or assisted living community in place of human caregivers in the near future, there are plenty of ways that robots are already making senior living more efficient—and are bound to do so in the coming years.
Considering the expected future capabilities of robots and the trajectory of their acceptance, here are a few key—and interrelated—areas robots will profoundly impact the senior housing industry.
1. Care delivery, Jetsons-style
Imagine this scenario: Each morning, Mary, an assisted living community resident, needs to take three different medications and be reminded of her daily schedule. Every day when she wakes up, Mary summons “Hector,” who comes over immediately and greets her.
After he reminds Mary to take her medications, Hector tells Mary that she has a shopping trip scheduled in two hours and asks if she would like to add anything to the grocery list he’s keeping for her. He also offers to help set up a video conference call with Mary’s granddaughter later in the day.
But Hector is not human. He is a robotic assistant who can operate collaboratively with “smart” environments and a remote control center in support of older adults. His creation, funded by the European Union in a public-private venture, is part of a four-year project that’s currently undergoing final stages of testing and trials.
2. Monitoring platforms—3.0
While Hector could soon be used in assisted living communities in theory, his cost may be prohibitive—at least at first—both for senior living providers to use as automated caregivers and for families to buy for their aging relatives. That could change.
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“In 10 years, telepresence will become more affordable to be able to implement,” predicts Eric Miller, Director of Technology at Status Solutions. “The barrier right now is cost.”
At this point, what’s more likely to catch on are products like Helios and Double Robotics, which give mobility to iPad and iPhone technology and are less expensive than Hector is likely to be.
“They’re basically smart devices with wheels,” Miller says. “I see this as being able to gain traction in the senior assisted living market because the technology is already there, leveraging platforms that have already been tested.”
For companies like Status Solutions, Care Innovations, Tel-Tron, and many others with smart sensor, emergency alert, and remote care platforms, going mobile with robotics could be a natural progression.
“All we would have to do is put our software onto [the iPad or iPhone] and modify it for the functionality we want,” Miller says. “We’re going to see a move away from projects like Hector toward software and solutions companies leaning toward solutions that are already developed from a technology standpoint.”
3. Meet your new nurse’s aide
Similar to existing monitoring platforms found in many senior living communities, robots have a variety of senior-care related capabilities, including monitoring movement, recording behavioral trends and pick up on unusual activity, collecting relevant data useful to seniors and their families, physicians, and caregivers, and providing medication administration.
Many communities have adopted the use of platforms with motion sensors to monitor movement and other indicators of residents’ health by their activity and behavior, but certain aspects of those systems are still lacking in efficiency, says Status Solutions’ Miller.
Nurses and staff at assisted living communities often spend a lot of time traveling back and forth among residents’ rooms. While in some cases human interaction is necessary, there are other circumstances where a robot could fill in, such as non-emergency cases.
“A senior resident may trigger a pull cord or hit a help pendant to get the attention of an attendant, who must then go to the resident, then go wherever they need to go to get what the resident needs,” Miller says. “If we can empower assisted living communities with little armies of telepresence, we can send [robots] when non-emergency alarms go off.”
Robots could make “tons of financial sense” in those cases, he says, by creating efficient staffing models that allow human workers to devote their time to tasks requiring human interaction.
4. Solving the senior care worker shortage
With 10,000 people a day turning 65 each year between 2010 and 2020, the United States’ overall senior population will eventually comprise about 20% of the overall population, according to the Census Bureau. At the same time, however, the labor pool for long-term care workers is shrinking.
More open attitudes toward technology among older adults paired with ongoing technological advances could spell some huge changes for the senior living and care industry, especially as other industries attempt to get a piece of the growing senior demographic pie.
“It will be interesting to see over the next few years, as more and more companies pay attention to the healthcare space,” said Todd Hudgins, Vice President of Business Development at Tel-Tron. “Companies have been very successful at automating other industries, and they could apply it in senior housing.”
Demand for direct-care workers will continue to outpace supply “dramatically,” says a recent report from the Paraprofessional Healthcare Institute (PHI), but robots could be used as a solution.
“I could see robots in assisted living or skilled nursing settings for medication management,” said Hudgins. “You don’t need humans for that, necessarily; you need accuracy. The industry will look at pieces of the puzzle that don’t require social interaction—just accuracy.”
5. Enabling independence
Robots will have the greatest societal leverage in the life safety and situational awareness markets, Miller predicts, and they’ll fill needs wherever possible, including in peoples’ homes.
“Robots can call people back, manage phone calls, create a grocery list and then add to it for a complete list when it’s time to go shopping,” he says. “For those experiencing memory loss, it would be very useful to have robot like Hector.”
The areas where society will see the greatest benefit from robotics are those that address things people can’t do—or can’t do as well as robots, says Miller.
“You’re going to see robots saving lives, and excelling at that with their speed and accuracy of relaying information such as the type of emergency, location of the emergency, and severity, and having that information relayed to the proper source,” he says. “Robots themselves won’t save lives, but they can expedite process to make sure more lives get saved.”
Written by Alyssa Gerace