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How Machines Could Ease the Caregiver Shortage

Technology can help train caregivers, and robots can be companions

By Robert L. Kane MD and SCAN Foundation

Editor's note: This article is part of a year-long project about aging well, planning for the changes that aging brings and shaping how society thinks about aging.

Demographic forecasts suggest that we will have a severe dearth of caregivers soon — both paid and unpaid. We need to start thinking about solutions.

One answer may be increasing efficiency by pushing for more congregate living. That does not mean institutions; it simply means eliminating travel time for caregivers. If you want care in your own home, that home needs to be conveniently located to others who also need care.

(MORE: Transforming Life As We Age)

Sharing Personal Care

My wife and I moved from a single-family house to a condominium. We did not lose control of our lives but we did gain access to services and economies of scale. For us, that meant getting more basic supports like shoveling snow and mowing lawns; for others, it could mean personal care.

But living arrangements alone won’t solve the problem of not having enough caregivers to go around. We need to think more creatively. I am banking on technology.

Technology to Guide Caregivers

We have a long history of delegating tasks to lesser-trained individuals as the tasks become more systematized and oversight is available to guide them. We can use information technology to guide caregivers through tasks they need to do — and assure that they do it. Computerized protocols can be matched with video conferencing to provide distant supervision. Checklists and algorithms can show people what to look for or ask about and what to do when they get the information.


(MORE: How to Use Your Home to Stay at Home)

Robby the Robot as Mom's Caregiver?

The next step will be to employ robotics more actively. These don’t have to look like the science fiction versions we grew up with — I don’t plan to be waited on by Robby the Robot. But many tasks can be done today by machines or assisted by machines.

If we can do robotic surgery, we can imagine that even personal care could be provided with machine assistance. Transportation, meal preparation, supervision and even companionship can be delivered this way. After all, we already have robotic pets (which are far better than pet rocks).

In some areas, robotics may be better than humans. For instance: given that persistent repetition is the bane of Alzheimer’s care, wouldn’t an endlessly patient and tolerant machine be better than a frustrated caregiver?

Robert L. Kane MD, MD holds an endowed Chair in Long-term Care and Aging at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. He is an internationally recognized expert on the care of older persons. He is also part of a group called The Long-Term Care Re-think Tank, and is doing all he can to change the way our country currently delivers care. Read More
By SCAN Foundation
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