We Can Build It… We Have The Technology

One thing is certain – over the next 10-20 years, regardless of what other economic or political events sweep the USA, this country will have far more older adults, as a proportion of the overall population, than we do now. This is sometimes referred to in the media as the “graying of America” or the “demographic tsunami” which has already been sweeping Japan and Europe.

On the one hand (as the linked article above accurately reports), members of this newer generation of older adults tend to be in better shape than counterparts of previous generations – and it appears that this trend will continue in the forseeable future; consequently the older adult of the future will be less likely to depend on long-term care than the older adult of today or yesteryear.

However – here’s the rub: we will be utterly groaning, bursting at the seams with older adults as a nation within the next few decades. Within the next 15 years, the number of people over the age of 60 in the U.S. will nearly double. By 2050, the numbers will nearly triple. That means that regardless of how much healthier the “baby boom” generation may be than previous generations of older adults and how much less prone to physical debility (and that’s also debatable, apparently), there will be much greater numbers of older adults requiring long-term care (as in skilled nursing care and assisted living) and even more older adults will require some sort of assistance in their home with basic activities of daily living (ADLs). So, while the proportion of the total number of older adults requiring nursing homes and intensive personal care arrangements may go down in the next 10-20 years, the overall number of older adults demanding nursing care will be skyrocketing.

And nursing care is absurdly expensive and getting more so. In California, nursing home beds at minimum fetch $60,000 per year and costs can go far north of that into the six figures. Hyperinflation of healthcare costs, for whatever the reason, has not excepted nursing homes (we’ll cover the challenge of affording nursing home care in an upcoming post).

So, with the costs so high and the “demographic tsunami” so clearly poised to swamp our system, what can be done? It’s worth imagining what the nursing home of the future will be faced with, and what they’ll need to do to accommodate these changes. Nursing homes of the future will be faced with patients with far more complex needs than the past – and that includes behavioral needs. Patients who make it into nursing homes today will be “triaged” to home care tomorrow so that nursing home beds can be saved for the neediest of the needy.

Long term care nursing staff, already working for one of the most heavily-regulated sectors of the US economy, generally have little time to spend providing and caring for patients’ psychosocial needs; tasks generally relegated to Recreation Therapy (RT) staff, volunteers, and the few-and-far-between mental health consultants who serve community facilities. So what are nursing homes to do? Modern long-term care facilities now offer cable television, and increasing numbers of nursing homes are offering wireless Internet capabilities to allow their increasingly-savvy residents to communicate with the outside world, but these kinds of technological innovations are cold comfort.

Some nursing homes have active “therapy dog” programs where residents are regularly exposed to animals for their well-recognized therapeutic purposes. Some nursing homes (particularly ones that subscribe to the “Eden Alternative” philosophy) even have animals that live in-house with the residents. Unfortunately, there are a number of issues with animals that make them impractical for use in many nursing homes in any widespread manner. First, there are the ever-present concerns about zoonoses (animal-to-human infection) and bites – no matter how vigilant a handler may be or how carefully veterinarian visits are documented, human error and the unpredictability of animals are always at play. Also, dogs and other animals need to be fed, toileted, cleaned, and with visitation therapy dogs need handlers to manage them – which make them a labor-intensive affair for an environment that tends to be starved for labor.

Meet the Paro Robot.

paro&daddy&shibataparo-robotic-healing-seal-2-1

What is the Paro? Specifically, it’s what the developer has called a “mental commit robot” – a robot designed to elicit feelings of relaxation and happiness in the user (as opposed to the more traditional use of robots; e.g., for accomplishing specific tasks). Initially, the developers attempted to create these therapeutic robots using cats and dogs as models. However, they found that despite the cat and dog ‘paros’ being sophisticated machines, people were much too familiar with dogs and cats – they had far too well-developed prototypes of these animals in their heads to be fooled by a robotic cat or dog simulacrum.  So the developers hit upon using the ever-so-cute baby harp seal as their model – and it worked, simply because average consumers in the industrialized world have never encountered harp seals in their lives (and so had no prototypes in their minds to compare to).

I first discovered the Paro Robot approximately two-and-half years ago after I had spent some time struggling with a difficult case of an older woman in my VA nursing home who had severe dementia. This woman was in her 80s, had severe chronic pain (from arthritis), some previous issues with depression and anxiety that predated her dementia, and now spent much of her day in her bed screaming inconsolably. As the staff psychologist at my VA nursing home, they looked to me to address this issue (psychiatric medications were also being tried). The only thing I noticed about her is that she quieted only when the therapy dog volunteers visited her – unfortunately these visits were few and far between. The Paro Robot seemed an ideal solution.

Although this woman died before I was able to make full use of the Paro Robot with her, I have since used it on multiple patients and have encouraged other staff to use it at our neighboring geropsychiatric facility in Menlo Park. Since then we have collected data that suggest the Paro Robot is indeed an effective intervention for use with agitated and distressed older adults. When offered to these (frequently demented) older adult VA nursing home patients, we found that they significantly calmed and brightened in their demeanor, and that use of the Paro Robot often resulted in psychotropic medications not being used with our patients – which is an outcome of enormous value in and of itself.

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