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Caring robots

Jane Priest, Teaching Fellow

Faculty Blog

A major and growing concern for much of the developed world is how to ensure that every old person is able to get the care they need. Nurses work tirelessly to give quality care, but increasing demand makes it harder to deliver. Is automation the answer?

The ‘aging population’ is largely a result of healthier lifestyles, meaning people are living longer, coupled with falling birth rates, meaning the proportion of older people is increasing. This raises an awkward question: who is going to care for my parents, me, my children in the future? According to Age UK’s ‘Care in Crisis’ campaign, in the UK alone there are 800,000 older people who are unable to get the care they need, putting huge pressure on friends and family.

Caring is a service. A vital part of a nurse’s role is to provide care, compassion and companionship and the resulting relationship can be rewarding for both parties. Unfortunately, short staffing is making it, in many cases, impossible for nurses to provide the level of care that they want to provide.

One country where this is evident is Japan. But rather than recruiting foreign workers to plug the nurse shortage, they are turning to lots of cheap Japanese robots. They believe ‘caring robots’ that help with tasks like hygiene, eating meals, walking and lifting things could reduce the work load on nurses, while enriching the quality of life for elderly patients. Rather than doing a nurse's job, they would act as 'assistive mechanisms'.

Could robotic help have any detrimental effect on job satisfaction or quality of care? Or is it welcome assistance for nurses, making their jobs more effective and rewarding, and encouraging independent living among the elderly?