Shortage of Dementia Care Workers May Lead to Development of Robots That Can Do the Job

The lack of skilled care workers available to take care of the elderly in various places around the world is an epidemic. As our population ages, the number of seniors in need of care has increased, and we’re getting to the point where there are not enough caregivers to look after them all.

Of course, there are a few potential ways to fix this problem. If a way to get caregivers higher wages and better working conditions can be devised, for example, then the career path will become more desirable, and more people will sign up to do the job. However, devising a way to make that solution a reality is a more complex undertaking than you might think.

So experts in the field have begun looking for alternative ways to ensure the elderly, particularly those with chronic health and mental conditions such as dementia, are adequately cared for. And one of their latest ideas is perhaps the most intriguing and out-of-the-box concepts we’ve heard of thus far.

Photo: Adobe Stock/fizkes

The idea is to design robots that can take care of some of the caretaking needs of elderly adults. At a recent workshop hosted by the Alzheimer Society of Ireland, attendees worked to answer the question of how robots might complement existing care for dementia patients.

Like many countries, Ireland is already experiencing a caregiver shortage. Currently, they’re filling this gap mostly with carers who come from overseas, but this is an unsustainable solution at best, as the population in various areas of the world is continuing to age.

“For demographic reasons, but also due to competing jobs, there is a real crisis in trying to get people into care jobs,” says Dr. Perry Share, head of business and social science at IT Sligo.

Photo: Adobe Stock/M.Dörr & M.Frommherz

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In Ireland, there are currently 64,000 people with dementia, but the number is expected to double within 25 years.

Currently, the Alzheimer Society of Ireland is experimenting at the Orchard Day Care Centre in Dublin with a furry robotic seal named Paro, who responds to touch and speech.

“A big thing in dementia care is pet therapy, where a real animal is brought into a dementia setting to give comfort to residents,” says Fergus Timmons, head of external learning and development at the Alzheimer Society. “The robot takes the physical danger out of that therapy.”

Photo: Adobe Stock/Alexander Limbach

Robotic animals can provide comfort and stimulation to dementia patients and give them something to do with their anxious hands. If the patient perceives that this is their pet and needs care, the robot can also provide a sense of purpose and autonomy to the patient.

“It can be very therapeutic for people, and that is comforting, because sometimes we would need medication to achieve that same effect,” Timmons says.

Similar robotic pets are available in many Nordic countries and other areas of Europe and North America, but there is still a lot of research to be done to work out the kinks in the program and teach carers how to use the robots to their full potential.

Photo: Adobe Stock/M.Dörr & M.Frommherz

But robots have a long way to go to be seriously useful as supplemental caregivers in a time of caregiver shortage. The proposed caregiver robots of the future might be able to socialize with dementia patients when nurses and caregivers simply don’t have the time, and they’ll never tire of patients’ sometimes nonsensical conversations.

Robots might also be used as monitors to keep track of a patient’s movements and alert a caregiver when the patient may be struggling or otherwise in need of assistance. They could also be used to screen patients for potential mental health conditions and other health issues.

Robots might also help elderly people with dementia be able to live at home longer. They could be set up with calendar and medication reminders, key locators, and safety prompts to help provide help along with a sense of autonomy for vulnerable people living alone.

Photo: Adobe Stock/M.Dörr & M.Frommherz

Will robots ever wholly replace human caregivers? It’s not likely, at least not anytime in the near future. The technology must advance much further before it can be trusted to perform activities like giving people their medication or helping unsteady patients use the bathroom.

There are also potential bioethical concerns surrounding robots, many of which are different in different locations around the world. According to Dr. Heike Schmidt-Felzmann, a lecturer at NUI Galway in bioethics with a particular focus on the ethics of robotics, it’s important to recognize how varying cultures will view robotic participation in caregiving. Germans, for example, tend to be concerned about privacy, while Spaniards think more about robots trying to take over people’s autonomy.

“We are hoping to help people see this as a tool rather than a sci-fi threat,” says Dr. Schmidt-Felzmann.

Regardless, robots are almost certainly going to have some part in caregiving for adults with Alzheimer’s and dementia in the future. Technology companies are already putting big money into robotic development. Only time will tell what they come up with.

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