Japan uses robots in nursing home care; an example for America?

By Alexa Adler
Medill Reports

Tokyo–The Japanese nursing home industry, facing a demographic crisis that combines an increasing number of nursing home patients with a decrease of eligible caregivers, has turned to robots to provide patient care designed to be both more effective and safer, while making caregivers’ jobs a little easier.

Silver Wing Social Welfare Corp., a Tokyo-based nursing home operator, fueled by a 5.2-billion-yen fund provided by the Tokyo metropolitan government for robot use, is one of the leaders in nursing home robotic innovations.

Declining birth rates and increased longevity have made the Japanese population increasingly elderly. According to the Statistics Bureau of Japan, people aged 65 or older, the group from which nursing home patients generally come, constitute a staggering 27.3 percent of the population, and the proportion is rising. The U.S. Census Bureau says that only 14.9 percent of Americans are 65-plus.

In order to accommodate and better serve this increasing population, Silver Wing and other nursing homes use a variety of robots of all shapes and sizes, largely manufactured by Japanese companies. According to Silver Wing’s CEO, Kimiya Ishikawa, robots are used primarily for three purposes, “rehabilitation, to help the caregiver and communication.”

Panasonic Transfer Assist Bed (Alexa Adler/MEDILL REPORTS)
Panasonic Corp.’s “Transfer Assist Bed” is an electric bed that transforms into an electric reclining wheelchair. (Alexa Adler/MEDILL)

Rehabilitation robots, like the Honda Walking Assist Device, allow a strapped-in patient to walk and do other forms of physical therapy. Panasonic Corp. provides a robot that assists a patient in moving from a bed to a wheelchair, helping not only the patient but the caregiver, since this maneuver assisted only by a caregiver can result in back injuries, a frequent occupational hazard for that profession.

"Honda Walking Assist Device" (Alexa Adler/MEDILL REPORTS)
The “Honda Walking Assist Device” helps patients walk. (Alexa Adler/MEDILL)

Communication-oriented robots interact orally with patients and lead them through a variety of recreational activities, which is particularly beneficial for Alzheimer’s and dementia patients who are prone to feelings of isolation and can benefit from mental stimulation.

Paro and Aibo Robots (Alexa Adler/MEDILL REPORTS)
Residents interact with the Paro robots, which look like baby seals, and the Aibo robots, which are dogs. (Alexa Adler/MEDILL)

Silver Wing also uses robots to improve patient safety. Robots like the Paramount Bed Co. Ltd. Sleep Management System are designed to monitor the condition of a patient in bed. A screen display tells a caregiver if the patient is sleeping calmly, is agitated or is attempting to rise. This can tip off a caregiver that a patient needs help. Other robots replicate cell phones and allow a patient to communicate with the robot and with a caregiver, or monitor the vital signs of patients, providing real-time warnings to caregivers of critical problems that could require an ambulance to a hospital.

Ishikawa notes that while he has no empirical evidence that his company’s robots increase life expectancy, “The risk for the patient’s falling down from the bed, for example, or something going wrong with their heart, can be checked through the monitors. So, in that sense, life expectancy will be longer.” He contends, “The patients here are much safer. There is always somebody checking them.”

Surprisingly, Ishikawa acknowledges that the use of robots has not resulted in cost savings, although this may change, he adds, as costs of robot production diminish and artificial intelligence technologies continue to improve. Nor has the use of robots reduced the need for caregivers, since Silver Wing’s robots are generally used in conjunction with caregivers. However, Ishikawa notes, by providing more readily available data about patients, robots undoubtedly enable caregivers to better focus on keeping patients safe–their most important responsibility. It is also possible that as technology improves in the future, robots will be able to operate more independently, freeing up caregiver time.

With the aging of baby boomers in the United States, Americans are facing demographic pressures similar to those experienced by the Japanese, and the U.S. nursing home population is also growing rapidly, suggesting that robots may well find similar uses here.

Photo at top: Residents at Silver Wing Social Welfare Corp. interact with robot “Pepper,” which is intended to interact with human expression. (Alexa Adler/MEDILL)