Marty Stempniak, Staff Writer

It’s bad enough that nursing home leaders have to constantly look over their shoulders, worried about when government bureaucrats or managed care plans might going to take the next whack at their payments. But now they have to worry about robots seizing their duties?

That vision is stepping a little closer to reality with a Monday announcement out of Washington State University. The cost of delivering long-term care remains unreachable for some — a survey this week pegged the cost such care can reach upward of $104,000 each year, which could triple by 2040. And with that, bright folks like the ones at WSU are scouring for ways to save a few bucks on that tab and, hopefully, keep seniors in their homes a little longer.

Their new Robot Activity Support System, or RAS, aims to let those suffering from dementia, or other limitations, live independently, by using sensors embedded throughout a “smart home” to keep tabs on where the elderly are, and when they might need assistance with daily activities, according to a university announcement. Those sensors enable RAS to navigate around obstacles, seek out its master, and even provide video instructions on performing tasks. The darn thing can even help Grandma find a snack or her medication.

“Upwards of 90 percent of older adults prefer to age in place as opposed to moving into a nursing home,” Diane Cook, Ph.D., professor of electrical engineering and computer science, and director of the WSU Center for Advanced Studies in Adaptive Systems, said in the announcement. “We want to make it so that instead of bringing in a caregiver or sending these people to a nursing home, we can use technology to help them live independently on their own.”

Of course, it’s not just robots that are lining up to take over some aspect of the eldercare workforce, or shift duties to a cheaper setting. Virtual visits are another item in the scientist’s toolbox. Another new study Monday, out of Massachusetts General Hospital, touts the benefits of such consults, noting that telehealth encounters used at the hospital can successfully replace office visits for many patients, without compromising the quality of care or communication. Among their study participants — some of whom were elderly, with difficulty traveling to the doctor — 62% reported the quality of the virtual visit was no different than going to an office.

Another Monday report details how a Lisbon, ME, memory care provider is using virtual reality to allow its residents to visit the Grand Canyon for a spot of river rafting and rock climbing, see the stars, or tour Iceland.

All of this has the cynic in me envisioning some strange, “Matrix”-like world, where Grandma or Grandpa is strapped to a recliner, fed happy pills by a robot, detached from reality while exploring some space fantasy. Meanwhile, the census rolls down the block at the local eldercare provider continue to dwindle. WSU notes that about half of adults over the age of 85 need help with everyday activities, and the yearly cost of this assistance is about $2 trillion (no estimate on how many of those dollars go directly to LTC).

Back to the robot, WSU tested it out with 26 students, recruiting them to complete three activities in the smart home — preparing to walk the dog, taking meds with food/water, and watering plants. If the sensors in the home sense that the test subject had failed to complete those duties, RAS received a message to assist.

Navigating its way to the subject, participants then got a prompt on a tablet interface, asking whether they’d like a prompt of the next step in the activity they were undertaking or a video of the entire activity, or they could indicate if they wanted the robot to lead them to the object needed, such as a dog leash or pill box. Participants in these early stages indicated that the robot performed admirably and was easy to use.

Up next, they’ll look to further test the robot in the older adult population. I’m fascinated to see what they learn. Yet despite the cynicism, I have to figure that there will always be a place for the long-term care professional in the equation, regardless of how these innovations shake up today’s status quo.

Follow Staff Writer Marty Stempniak @MStempniak.