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It Came From A Land Down Under…To Help Seniors

November 25, 2009
Residents of a retirement community in New Zealand are experiencing technological advances firsthand as a robot, tasked with taking vital signs and giving reminders, among other jobs, has joined the human staff of the facility. A study about elders’ attitudes toward robots helped researchers at The University of Auckland in New Zealand develop the inexpensive robotic assistant, leading to its trial run at the retirement village. With a rapidly aging population placing an increased strain on the health and aged care sectors in their country, the aim of the research group is to have robotic devices to help staff with menial tasks and extend the amount of time older people can stay in their own homes. “Robotic assistants could provide a range of benefits in healthcare as the population ages, but designers must first understand older people’s attitudes and expectations of robots before they can be accepted,” says Dr. Bruce MacDonald of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and head of the research group. The group’s initial study showed residents would most like robots to assist with detecting falls, calling for help, switching on and off appliances, cleaning, making phone calls to a doctor or nurse, lifting heavy things, monitoring the location of people and giving reminders to take medications. In terms of appearance, the ideal is a middle-aged, silver robot just under four feet tall, with a clear-voice, wheels and a screen on the body, but not necessarily a face. The Reverend Duncan Macdonald, CEO of The Selwyn Foundation which owns and manages Selwyn Village, the retirement community involved in the study and robot trial, says the Selwyn Foundation is noted for pioneering the use of new technologies in the care of older people: “We aim to adopt the most innovative services possible, providing they deliver better quality care for our residents and are financially and operationally viable. As the use of this type of assistive technology is in line with our philosophy of supporting residents to remain as independent as possible, we have been delighted to help The University of Auckland with such a groundbreaking project." The three-year HealthBots project operates in collaboration with Korea’s Electronics and Telecommunications Research Institute (ETRI).