When caregivers aren't human

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Mary Gustafson, McKnight's Staff Writer
Mary Gustafson, McKnight's Staff Writer
I used to work for an e-newsletter company that prided itself on churning out well-rounded cocktail party conversationalists. I could tell you what we wrote about (but then I'd have to kill you, as it goes). Suffice it to say, our topics were diverse.

However, none of those topics were as stop-you-in-your-tracks bizarre as a nursing home meth lab fire or caregiving robots — topics I've written about for McKnight's with surprising frequency — especially the latter. If you can speak authoritatively about robots in social conversation, people tend to snap to attention.

And with good reason.

Whether it's PARO, the robotic seal or infant-like Babyloids, anything that is used as a substitute for human touch sparks debate.

It's almost a given that the Japanese are ahead of the curve when it comes to adapting robotic technologies to nursing homes — after all, the United States isn't alone in preparing to care for a rapidly aging population. As of September 2011, Japan had nearly 48,000 people over the age of 100.

Japan's newest caregiving robot, Hospi-Rimo, is “designed to act as an intermediary to improve communication between patients who are bed-ridden or have limited mobility, for example, and other people, such as a doctor in another room or even in another city.”

Designed by Panasonic, it features a screen that displays a high-definition smiley face, not unlike an emoticon. Truly, service with a smile.   ; - )

Even stranger, to me, is that Panasonic upgraded its hair-washing robot, which uses its 16 fingers to comfortably wet a senior's hair, shampoo, rinse, condition and dry. 

Too basic for you? The robot's arms have sensors that remember each user's head size and their hair-washing preferences for their post-wash scalp massage.

I'm not sure which thought is more depressing — that such intimate acts as washing a person's hair have been turned over to androids, or that we need a new study to tell us that patients feel more satisfied with their care when a clinician talks to them while seated rather than standing.

Most competent caregivers know instinctively that having a good bedside manner involves, literally, sitting at a resident's side. Yet researchers say they were “shocked” when their data revealed as much.

Undoubtedly, direct caregivers have the most challenging job. I just hope they don't underestimate the power of a human touch. I'd take that over witty cocktail-party banter any day.

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McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Emily Mongan.

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