Reader's Digest Canada|March 2021
An army of artificially intelligent caregivers is keeping seniors fit, fed and healthy. They might even be better than the real thing.
Katrina Onstad

BRIAN SITS AT A TABLE, across from an elderly woman. He is wearing a blue T-shirt and a baseball hat. She is petite, with curly grey hair, an expectant smile, and a tray of scrambled eggs in front of her. “The side dish looks very tasty,” he says in a cheerful voice, reminiscent of a primary school teacher. “Why don’t you try some?”

She takes a bite. “It’s pretty good, Brian,” she says politely.

Brian’s own smile is a little robotic, which isn’t judgey; he’s a prototype socially assistive robot. His stiff expressions are created via actuators beneath his silicone-rubber face, and his blue T-shirt is draped over a torso of wires and arms with metallic hands. The full effect borders on creepy, a mash-up of an emoji, an over-plugged outlet, and a mannequin. Yet among the seniors who encounter him in research testing, Brian is a hit.

Brian’s job is to motivate older adults to eat. Eating can be a life-and-death health issue for elderly people in care, especially those with cognitive impairment. That population is the focus of the work underway at the University of Toronto’s Autonomous Systems and Biomechatronics Laboratory, where Brian and his fellow prototypes were developed.

Goldie Nejat, a professor and Canada Research Chair in Robots for Society at U of T, and her research team are building an array of socially assistive robots that can offer support for everyday and repetitive tasks, such as eating, selecting clothes or exercising, with the aim of lightening the burden for seniors and their caregivers. And the future is closing in: Nejat predicts that robots could become a common presence in care facilities within two to five years.

The technology that animates Brian and his ilk might be complex and anchored in artificial intelligence, but the promise of “robocars”—a field that’s booming around the world—is simple. Robots give us time. If these machines take on much of what sociologists call the “dull and dirty” work of caregiving, humans will be freed up to do what matters most: providing companionship, touching, talking. The caring part of caregiving will be restored.

After Brian has made a couple of bad jokes (“Why did the cookie go to the doctor?” “She was feeling crummy!”), and the woman has eaten her eggs and finished her juice, their time together comes to an end. Sweetly, she says: “Thank you, Brian. I hope to see you again.”

To observe a person extend such graciousness to a machine is strange, and somehow poignant, yet most of the subjects who meet Brian do so. The inevitable integration of robots and caregiving doesn’t just signal a triumph of technological innovation but also serves as a stark reminder of our failings when it comes to the elderly. It’s clear that the robots are on their way, but the desired outcome is much murkier. Who wins, and who loses, when the machines arrive to do what we can’t?

WHEN MY GRANDMOTHER was moving through the stages of dementia, and nearing the end of her life, in the late ’90s, she lived in a government-funded complex-care home in Vancouver. It was a pretty, wood-sided house with a tidy green lawn and warm staff—about as good as long-term care can get. Yet I remember sitting with her in her room when she was agitated, hitting the call button and waiting with frustration for someone to arrive. Perhaps whoever was on call was tired; surely, they were all overworked. Still, waiting felt like an affront. In the eyes of a loving family member, the attention provided could never be sufficient. No caregiver could give her enough support, enough love, enough time.

Resources to serve the elderly population are scarce and patchily available. Medical advances mean many will be living with chronic illnesses. They’ll likely want to age at home for as long as possible, and public policy shifts encourage it, even with a nationwide shortage of personal support workers. During the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, 81 per cent of deaths in Canada were among residents of long-term care homes, and staffing shortages were identified as a primary factor in the virus’s spread.

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