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In some ways, the Jetson family gave us a look at what is becoming our technologically supported life.

In two short years, the American population of those 65 and older will number 65 million.

It’s a staggering number that demands some out of the box thinking, especially when coupled with the shrinking supply of paid and unpaid caregivers. Some solutions are so forward-thinking that many could mistake them for science fiction. But so far, robots are adding an extra layer of care to an exploding elderly population that is in need of more help than currently available.

According to a recent study from Merrill Lynch, there are currently only 34 million people, mostly family members, who provide $500 billion worth of free care to loved ones each year. These caregivers form the backbone of this country’s long-term care system. Many, however, are aging out of their roles and either now need or will soon require caregivers of their own.

Additionally, the number of frail older adults without children will double by 2040, according to the AARP Public Policy Institute. “There’s no natural caregiver for this population,” says Grace Whiting of the National Alliance for Caregiving.

Ninety percent of those surveyed want to remain in their homes, stressing caregivers even more so. Many homes are not frail-friendly or are some distance from the caregiver, in locations which turn schedules inside out to accommodate a loved one’s need. If help is hired from outside agencies, economics for families are stressed to the max.

Is there any hope for easing the impending crisis?

Approaches to mitigate the frightening gap between demand and supply may trigger a recollection of the 1960s cartoon, The Jetsons. In some ways, this fictional family gave us a look at what is becoming our technologically supported life.

Artificial intelligence (AI) and robots are among some brilliantly crafted solutions to the aging population crisis. Japan is the leader in exploring alternatives to real humans handling mundane and repetitive tasks. China, with its decades long one-child policy, is facing steep supply issues of its own.

Artificial intelligence is the core technology behind smartphone applications, robotics, medical technology, drones and self-driving cars. The potential for helping to create a healthy longevity is promising. We are already familiar with some early applications of AI. Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana are conversational interfaces that promise to extend the independence of an aging population.

However, adoption has been slow among older Americans. Despite claims that reluctance is due to privacy concerns, the biggest obstacle to use is AI’s unfamiliar and intimidating territory. The new frontier portends a lengthy process of conversion, and AI is most likely more readily accepted by the younger-old stratums that have grown comfortable with its use.

Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana are conversational interfaces that promise to extend the independence of an aging population.

A senior interacts with ELLI.Q

Some companies are in the early stages of testing AI into the caregiving model. Hasbro and Brown University collaborated to create a Joy for All robotic cat to help the elderly find things around the house and remind them of events and medications. The robotic cats provide some of the comfort that pets can offer.

Israel’s Intuition Robotics introduced ELLI.Q, an “aging companion.” This product is supported by more than $20 million in venture capital, mostly from Toyota AI Ventures. Toyota’s big-money investment is a pioneering solution to the “caregiving cliff;” by 2030, there will be only four potential caregivers for every person needing care. ELLI.Q can offer suggestions for entertainment and activities. It can also remind its human companion about medications or an eating schedule.

Pearl is a mobile robot system designed by three leading universities as part of the Nursebot Project. Its initial goal was to develop mobile robotic assistants for elderly people living in their homes, particularly those with mild cognitive impairment. Pearl is now being tested in a residential retirement community in Pennsylvania.

Human touch, a listening ear and the sensibilities that accompany face-to-face human interaction will always be necessary for flourishing. Robots and AI can augment human contact, rather than replace it. In its first steps of evolution, AI can remind the aging about routine activities and guide them through day-to-day schedules.

This is not a science fiction experiment. The numbers of those requiring care are alarming, and when we add the element of dementia, we are called to create solutions to this crisis. Some would argue that we have an ethical responsibility to pay caregivers more and that a piece of programmed metal to care for loved ones debases the intergenerational commitment a humane society carries.

As John Markoff of Stanford’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences maintains, “It comes down to the question of whether or not we use this technology in humanizing ways.”

I agree. Can we say that cramming greater numbers of the elderly into under-staffed facilities is more humane? I strongly doubt it.

Photo:Feature photos courtesy of Elli.Q

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