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Japan eyes robotic future for aged care

Participants exploring Paro 2

Delegates play with PARO, a robotic seal used as a therapeutic intervention for people with dementia

Robots could deliver a higher standard of care than poorly skilled care workers, according to one of Japan’s leading providers of aged care.

Hitoshi Fukomoto, the executive director of Kinoshita Care, said his organisation was looking to cutting-edge robotic technology to deliver greater efficiencies in care and to help plug the gap in chronic labour shortages.

Speaking to Australian Ageing Agenda following his keynote address at the Australasia Ageing Global Masterclass on Monday, Mr Fukomoto said the application of robotic technologies in aged care had the potential to standardise care for the elderly and provide much needed assistance in the areas of manual labour and personal care.

“While robots cannot exceed the best quality care workers, they are a lot more efficient and deliver better care than the workers with no or poor skills,” he said.

He said robotics could be especially useful in managing incontinence in older people and might be preferable to human care in this area.

Mr Fukomoto told the Sydney forum the robotics market in Japan was growing rapidly and was backed by government subsidies for research and development.

Hitoshiki Fukumoto

Hitoshi Fukumoto

In 2013, the Japanese Government launched a plan to accelerate the development of nursing care robots by providing financial subsidies to companies to research and develop new technologies.

The government outlined four priority areas for growth including transfer care, mobility assistance, dementia care and continence care.

Kinoshita Care, which first introduced social robots into its 142 facilities in 2012, has recently started investing in care robotics including the purchase of 40 robot power suits that support care workers to lift and move bed-bound residents.

Beds have also been developed which incorporate automated toileting and washing systems for continence management and others that can be separated and turned into a wheelchair.

“This technology can reduce the workload of families or care workers,” said Mr Fukumoto.

The Hybrid Assistive Limb or HAL, which is worn an exoskeleton suit, can also be used in rehabilitation to assist people to regain physical function.

In the area of communication-type robots, PALRO, a humanoid robot has proven to be popular among aged care residents and is mainly used for social interaction and recreation. PALRO uses facial recognition to communicate with residents and has the capacity to remember up to 100 people’s faces. It can also sing, play games and provide news updates.

The robotic seal PARO is primarily used with older people with dementia to reduce stress, anxiety and social isolation. Its application in an Australian context is currently the subject of a three-year study by Professor Wendy Moyle from Griffith University.

Mr Fukumoto said ensuring high standards of safety and promoting the acceptance of robotics among care workers were some of the key challenges to widespread use.

The government is currently funding research and development of aged care robotics but in the next phase of its acceleration program will subsidise the purchase of these technologies by industry, he said.

“When the camera was introduced a long time ago people were so afraid they believed that the camera sucked out your soul and so they tried to avoid it. There were similar stories when cars or trains were invented. The same goes for robots.”

The Australasia Ageing Global Masterclass is hosted by Ageing Asia and takes place in Melbourne today and in Brisbane on Friday.

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4 Responses to Japan eyes robotic future for aged care

  1. Kim Robey August 6, 2014 at 2:22 pm #

    Robots may help but they are no substitute for personal contact. Human contact is a vital component of psychological, and therefore physical, health. A poorly skilled carer needs training, reviewing, not removing.
    You are restricting the social interaction experience of the isolated aged even more when you turn to machines instead of the touch of another human being.

    They need people every bit as much as you and I do.

    Kim Robey

  2. Dave August 7, 2014 at 10:31 am #

    I need a robot to pick me up off the floor after reading this article.

    Japan has cities full of homeless elderly living on the streets with little or no social support. Surely the funds invested in robotic development would be better spent on beds and shelters or training all those workers with ” no or poor skills”.

    There’s no labour shortage in Japan, they have a care system shortage.

    Mr Fukomoto’s company should concentrate on making better Godzilla movies and let funds allocated for aged care be spent on carers. Sometimes lo-tech is better than hi-tech.

  3. Samuel Zheng March 19, 2016 at 4:02 pm #

    If anybody develops a real good robot system for aged people, he will be the hero since everyone needs one one day. I will need one which really helps.

  4. Sarah June 30, 2016 at 8:58 am #

    I live in aged care (disabled at 31) and it’s not that bad careers need more training, it’s that they are understaffed due to profit margins, or simply don’t care/have bad attitudes.

    My concern with robots is that I won’t get to see good Carers . And care will be homogenous and depressing. We need highs and lows so we appreciate highs…I know which Carers have certain strengths and who to ask for what. A robot might not be programmed to do anything outside the system, and that’s often where my care needs are.

    If the grunt work was done by robots, could the social work be done by Carers…there would need to be a regulated minimum person contact /day quota for nursing home businesses to meet.

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