Feb 27 11:00 AM

Robot care for aging parents?

Watch part two of Adam May's report. For more stories on elder care, check out the rest of America Tonight’s special series “Aging America.

FREDERICK, Md. – In the five years since her husband Wendell died, Edith Duff has lived on her own in a retirement community outside Washington, D.C. But now at age 86, she has a new roommate: a robot.

The MantaroBot “telepresence” robot can’t clean or cook, but it allows Duff’s daughter Wendy to join her for lunch from 2,000 miles away. It’s one of a new generation of devices and services that companies are scrambling to build, as an enormous market — the baby boomers who make up a quarter of America’s population — hit retirement age in a steady stream. The technologies let seniors stay in their homes for longer and with greater independence, while giving assurance to adult children that their loved ones are safe.

Wendy’s brother Don, a former telecom executive, discovered the MantaroBot through his company, which considered buying them as a way for employees to visit foreign factories from afar. It was a couple thousand dollars, and required only a Wi-Fi connection. He thought about his mom, and bought it.

“It’s been such a relief to be able to be here in difficult situations with her,” he said. “And if I'm in West Virginia or something and can't be here formally, I can jump in the robot any time through my laptop and be with her.”

Edith Duff has seen plenty of technological advances in her lifetime, but she found the robot a little unnerving at first.

“Different things have come up through the years that you have to acclimate to,” she said. “But this is extreme.”

Augmenting seniors’ abilities

Jim Osborne, head of Carnegie Mellon University's Quality of Life Technology Center, poses with a prototype of the Home Exploring Robot Butler, or HERB.
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“Life is a terminal illness, right?” said Jim Osborne of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. “So we’re all going to have some decline.”

Osborne heads the university’s Quality of Life Technology Center, a federally funded lab that creates robotics for people who are aging or have disabilities. His team are trying to build more advanced eldercare robots, like a mechanical arm that can be attached to a wheelchair to assist with tasks like eating and dressing.

This isn’t just fun gadgetry, he explained. It’s an urgent social need. By 2030, almost one in five Americans will be 65 or over, and getting older. And the demand for homecare is far outstripping the supply. Personal care aides and home health aides are the second and third fastest-growing occupations in the country. There’s a care gap that will continue to widen, and technology will be one of the things to fill it.

“We don't have enough caregivers, and people are not choosing that as a profession,” said Osborne. “There's going to have to be other ways to augment [seniors’] abilities – and technology's going to have to amplify what they do.”

Different things have come up through the years that you have to acclimate to, but this is extreme.

Edith Duff

Adamstown, Md.

But the technological progress is slow going. One of the lab’s showcase projects, the Home Exploring Robot Butler, or HERB — an all-in-one robot helper — is still many years away from being ready for the home.

Osborne said consumers would likely see smaller, targeted technology around the home in the next few years. And some homes are already wired up with instruments that can learn residents’ patterns of sleeping and eating, and modify, in a rudimentary way, heat, light and energy use in response. 

Sense of security

Minnesota senior Eleanor Boysen said she doesn’t feel that she’s lost any privacy because of the home sensors installed by her daughter.
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In rural Minnesota, Eleanor Boysen’s house tracks more than that.

The feisty 89-year-old proudly declared that she can swear in both German and Polish. But she’s also diabetic with mobility issues, and her daughter Lynn worries about leaving her alone in the basement apartment they share, particularly when she travels for work.

“It was always a concern, more of a concern if she were to fall or something, because that has happened a few times,” she said. “And then, she had a heart attack a couple of years ago.”

So, Lynn Boysen installed home sensors in the bathroom, kitchen and bedroom of their apartment.

"They notify my daughter when I do things… like the one in the bathroom. If I'm not there by 9 o'clock and there's no movement, then she could find out whether there's something wrong with me,” explained Eleanor Boysen.

It’s a relief for Lynn to know her mother is safe, and a relief for Eleanor to know she’s not as much of a burden.

“She's got things to do like everybody else,” Eleanor Boysen said. “And this way it makes her free.”

The quantified senior

These new technologies will likely transform the way many families care for their older loved ones. They will also likely make many people rich. The market for wireless sensor networks was estimated to be worth $550 million in 2012, but is expected to skyrocket to $14.6 billion by 2019.

The sensors in Eleanor Boysen’s apartment – sold by Wisconsin company GrandCare – are able to track the intimate activities of a person’s day. Motion sensors can detect when the front door is opened. Temperature sensors can tell if the stove has been left on. Pressure sensors will detect when mom or dad gets out of bed and how long he or she spent in that favorite chair. 

The information is sent to a website that the adult child can use to monitor the older loved one’s daily routine and mine for potential problems. Daphne Karpen, a palliative care nurse who installed the system in the Boysen’s home, said one client had a sensor in the bathroom that didn’t get triggered for two nights. The daughter noticed, contacted the nurse and they realized her father was getting a little bit dehydrated.  

Edith Duff speaks with her daughter Wendy through her MantaroBot.
America Tonight

“But if that daughter isn't looking at that sensor data, and paying attention to his daily patterns and really looking at it with a critical eye, then that process progresses,” said Karpen. “It's all as good as the family using it on the backside.”

With more knowledge comes more responsibility, as adult children can now have an endless stream of data, which at any moment could signal a problem. They’re the frontline care provider.

“They now have more information about their parents than the doctors do, they're certainly more up to date because it's like, ‘What were they doing a minute ago?’” said Osborne. “And that wasn't necessarily what people wanted. This is more information than I bargained for. This is more responsibility than I bargained for.”

For parents, it might be an uncomfortable adjustment to suddenly have your children track your every movement. But it’s a tradeoff to regain some independence, a substitute for a professional home aide watching you, or institutional care.

Asked if she feels that she’s lost any of her privacy because of the sensors, Eleanor Boysen said no. But what about the fact that her daughter knows when she’s in the bathroom?

“Yeah, well, that's alright,” she said.

Correction added Feb. 27: A previous version of this article stated that Edith Duff uses a Double robot, but she uses a MantaroBot.

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