Robots for the Elderly–Necessary or Inauthentic?

It is no secret that the current population is aging, and aging quickly. There is a growing concern for the availability of care for the increasing number of elderly. Although this worry is prevalent in the U.S., it is also true on a global scale. In Germany, the ratio of caregivers to care recipients is expected to grow from 1:9 to 1:17 by the year 2050.1 An entire industry is built around the necessary care of the elderly, and many fear that such labor will not be able to keep up with the demand. In Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together, an alternative solution is presented: the use of robotics to provide care, security, and companionship for the aging population.

The idea that robots can successfully replace caretakers could be argued from two distinct viewpoints. On one hand, the reality must be faced: there will simply be a greater number of elderly people requiring care than there will be people willing to provide the care. In this respect, robots could potentially serve a very pragmatic role. Some of the current robotic machines on the market are used for bathing, mobility, tracking vital signs, dispensing medication, and calling for emergency care when needed.1 Such uses could make the difference between life and death in certain situations when constant human care is simply not available.

In a journal article by Jennifer Parks, another interesting perspective is offered on this topic. Parks notes that the field of caretaking is overwhelmingly and historically delegated to women. The responsibility of “community care services” almost always falls to the female population. Indeed, I challenge you to walk into a nursing home and locate a significant number of male nurses. This gender imbalance creates an issue in which women in the caretaking industry are subject to heavy and repetitious labor roles, which can even result in injury and “care burnout.” In this regard, Turkle offers that robots could potentially eliminate the cruelty that, unfortunately, exists among caretakers of the elderly.2 However, there are also many drawbacks to this form of artificial human care.

Despite the practical use of robots, they are ultimately still highly “inauthentic” when it comes to human interaction. Robotics may be useful in bathing an elderly patient, but that experience now lacks the personal touch and nurture that only a human can provide. The mechanic care given by robots can also play a part in eliminating dignity for the elderly. For someone who lives in a care facility with little freedom, the interaction with real human nurses may be the only thing they look forward to in a given day.

Finally, it is important to recognize how the use of robots can mentally affect the caretakers they replace. To a certain extent, humans need the “burden” of care in order to validate their ability to provide love.2 This responsibility makes us feel needed, and the person being cared for, consequently, reciprocates with love and appreciation. Although the amount of care needed for the aging population can be overwhelming, it also provides an opportunity to perform very fulfilling work. Robots may be able to replace humans in some cases, but caretakers and care recipients are both missing out in this arrangement.


 

1Parks, Jennifer, “Lifting the Burden of Women’s Care Work: Should Robots Replace the ‘Human Touch’?” Hypatia, 18 Dec 2009.

2Turkle, Sherry, Alone Together. 2010.

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