Technology is slowly changing the face of residential and home-based aged care. Should we be concerned? asks JUDE BARBACK.

I feel slightly nauseous at the thought of having my hair washed by a robot. But, according to futurist Morris Miselowski, there’s a good chance this will happen one day, years from now, when I find myself in care. Along with exoskeletons and self-driven cars, robots are set to be part of our world. Ready or not, here they come; this was the gist of Miselowski’s talk at last year’s RVA conference.

In fact, hair-washing, spoon-feeding robots have already been developed in Japan, so the “one day” is likely closer than we think. As things stand, health bots and companion bots are already well established in many dementia care units, including Auckland’s Selwyn Village.

I’ve “met” JiBo at a few conferences now. JiBo is a cute, albeit slightly irritating bot that seems to do it all – makes telephone calls, skypes, connects to the internet, reads stories, plays music, sets reminders, controls other technology. I found myself wondering how such a thing would look in my kitchen – but then perhaps we had concerns like this when televisions came on the scene, and now they adorn every other room.

But what if iterations of JiBo become a proxy for carers in our residential care facilities and in our homes?

In aged care residential facilities, is there a risk that robots will replace care workers?

It is unlikely care workers will be out of a job anytime soon. Japan and Germany are already facing a worker shortage as a result of their ageing population. We’re going to need more workers and robots and assistive technologies are likely to help ease this problem. Technology can help reduce carer workloads and the expense of care provision in the longer term.

CSIRO economist Dr Andrew Reeson told AustralianINsite that technology can take out many of the more routine aspects of care staff’s work and leave them to focus on the services that add more value.

“There is clearly a need for greater productivity to kick in at some point,” Reeson said. “There will be many exciting pieces of technology that will help that happen. That said, what we also see is that the people skills, the interpersonal skills, the caring skills – they’re actually the ones that are increasingly in demand.”

John Engeler, group manager of accommodation and services at Australian aged-care provider SummitCare, says technology will play a key role in both the lifestyle and care of residents. Their new Baulkham Hills site will feature wireless connectivity, sensors, alarm call and fall-prevention systems, CCTV security and video conferencing.

 “It allows the care staff to be able to ensure that care is provided beyond that which would normally be limited by [staff numbers],” he told Australian INsite.

Technology is also helping people remain in their homes for longer. Sensor technology, assistive technologies and telehealth can help older people to remain independent for longer.

Sensors, for example, can transmit information about whether a person is in bed, sitting in a chair or if they have fallen on the floor. They can detect when a bed or floor is wet. They can monitor blood pressure or blood sugar levels. This information can be incredibly useful in helping carers or medical assistance when needed.

Telehealth is another big area. Patient portals are taking off, allowing residents and their families to help manage aspects of their healthcare online. The Ministry of Health has identified telehealth and associated technologies as two of the biggest initiatives earmarked for rural communities as part of its New Zealand National Health Strategy, 2016 to 2026 – not surprising, when you consider that by 2041 almost a quarter (24 per cent) of all New Zealanders will be aged 65 or older and many will be living independently in the community.

There is the uneasy prospect that we begin to rely too much on technology for older people living in their own homes. What if we rely on robots to provide respite from social isolation?

These are valid concerns as we forge ahead with new technologies in residential and community-based aged care. The key will be not to let them encroach on the essence of caregiving, the human connection that cannot be wholly replicated by a robot.


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