Robots In the Home May Help the Elderly
< Nov. 19, 2008 > -- Home healthcare assistance for American seniors may be provided by helpful robots in the near future, experts predict.
It is an exciting time for innovations and improvements in medical equipment - including the use of robots. The reality of in-home robotic assistance that can aid and watch over the frail and elderly is swiftly approaching.
The uBOT-5 robot, is already capable of carrying out simple tasks while it monitors the home environment. The robot can even spot trouble, such as a person falling down and call 911 if necessary.
Stay Connected with Long Distance Loved Ones
A robotic device can bring a faraway loved one into a person's home via video Internet hook-up. The technology allows the caller's face to appear via video on the front of the robot's head. As a result, the virtual visitor can converse with their loved one while moving the robot around, doing some cleaning, for example, or retrieving a dropped TV remote.
"So, if I'm at work, and it's lunch hour and I want to poke in on Dad, I can get on the Internet and basically 'step inside' the robot," says uBOT-5 co-inventor Rod Grupen, Ph.D., who directs the Laboratory for Perpetual Robotics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst (UMass).
The device can be fully mobile which will allow virtual visits from several locations throughout the house, and beyond. For instance, "your granddaughter on the West Coast can get into the robot and visit with you outside in the garden, you can have a two-way conversation with audio/video, hold hands and go show them the flowers you just planted," Dr. Grupen says.
Further, any "authorized user" can jump into and guide the robot, Dr. Grupen says, "So, if you can't get to your doctor, your doctor can now come to you," he states. In fact, the UMass team hopes that the uBOT-5 will someday be capable of running simple medical tests, such as measuring blood pressure or blood sugar.
Design and Capabilities
The uBOT-5's design was inspired by the human body. Its myriad sensors mimic human eyes and ears, constantly scanning its environment. It is even programmed to detect and respond to worrisome aberrations, including a fallen, unresponsive human.
The robot's arms are each capable of handling 2.2-pound loads, and they can extend to reach high or pick things up off the floor (a dropped pill bottle, a package in a foyer, for example). The robot can lie prone to scoot itself under a bed (and then right itself), and it may even someday help with household cleaning and grocery shopping, Dr. Grupen says.
Researchers led by assistant professor Charlie Kemp, Ph.D., at Georgia Tech are making their own home-care robots, inspired by the agile intelligence of service dogs. "We're using service dogs to answer three important questions: What tasks would be good for a home robot to perform? How should people interact with the robot, to tell it to do these tasks? And how can the robot actually perform these tasks, given the complexities of the home?" Dr. Kemp says.
The new robot is being designed to move about and perform tasks such as opening drawers, turning doorknobs, and working light switches, Dr. Kemp says. Users indicate what they would like done by using a laser pointer, and homes are modified slightly to help the robot, just as homes are subtly tweaked to aid service dogs. "Things like tying a small towel to a doorknob" to facilitate grasping, Dr. Kemp explains.
Healthcare Shortages Spur A Growing Need
There is a large and growing need for robotic home assistants that might help care for the elderly or disabled and allow them to stay in their homes, Dr. Grupen believes. According to US Census figures, the number of Americans age 65 or over will double by 2030, and two-thirds will need some form of long-term care. At the same time, there is a dearth of nurses and home health-care aides to care for them; experts predict a shortage of 800,000 nurses by 2020.
"I think there's a real need," he says. "So, the hope is that people will support this sort of work. Then, we'll be able to deliver these things when people need them."
The robot may not ever replace a great service dog, but Dr. Kemp notes that the average disabled American now pays $16,000 for a properly trained canine, and waiting lists now stretch for years.
Right now, the prototypes at UMass cost $65,000 apiece, but Dr. Grupen envisions a day when commercial versions would be sold for $5,000 plus a monthly Internet hook-up fee, much like today's computers
Always consult your physician for more information.
For more information on health and wellness, please visit health information modules on this Web site.
What is Elder Care?
Americans are living longer and living well for longer periods of time. This has created a relatively new and growing area of health care and provider services, known as elder care. Elder care encompasses a wide variety of issues, including choosing an appropriate physician to care for an aging patient, and making decisions about moving an elderly person from the home environment to a residential care setting.
Persons age 65 and older are the fastest growing segment of America's population. The projected increase in older Americans age 65 or older is 35 million in 2000 to 40 million in 2010, and then 55 million in 2020.
Many elderly people are living healthy, active, and independent lives. However, as more people reach their 80s and 90s, the number of elderly needing assistance with daily living increases, along with the responsibilities of those who provide care for them.
Different stages in life can require different health care providers. Therefore, it is important to have a personal physician, or primary care physician, who understands the special needs of older patients.
Many types of physicians, including family practitioners, internists, and geriatricians, care for elderly patients. A family practitioner provides health care to all family members, regardless of age. An internist specializes in internal medicine generally for adults. A geriatrician is specially trained in elder care.
Choosing the right primary care physician is an important decision. Generally, you want a physician who is competent and well trained, and cares for and about the patient.
Once you have selected two or three possible physicians, it is a good idea to visit their offices and ask them questions about office policies and their approach to elder care.
To make the most of each visit to the physician, it is best to plan ahead. In other words, prepare for the appointment to be sure you are able to provide some basic information such as what medications you are taking including prescription, over-the-counter, vitamin and herbal supplements, a thorough medical history and insurance information.
In addition, consider bringing along a friend or family member to act as a "second set of eyes and ears". Writing down questions and concerns in advance to be discussed with the physician is also recommended. In some cases, a tape recorder or note pad can be helpful to capture the instructions and information given by the physician.
Overall, when visiting your physician, it is best to have the basic information available to help your visit be as productive as possible.
Always consult your physician for more information.