Saturday, March 25, 2023

Robots and elder-care

Jason Horowitz, Who Will Take Care of Italy’s Older People? Robots, Maybe. NYTimes, Mar. 25. 2023.

CARPI, Italy — The older woman asked to hear a story.

“An excellent choice,” answered the small robot, reclined like a nonchalant professor atop the classroom’s desk, instructing her to listen closely. She leaned in, her wizened forehead almost touching the smooth plastic head.

“Once upon a time,” the robot began a brief tale, and when it finished asked her what job the protagonist had.

“Shepherd,” Bona Poli, 85, responded meekly. The robot didn’t hear so well. She rose out of her chair and raised her voice. “Shep-herd!” she shouted.

“Fantastic,” the robot said, gesticulating awkwardly. “You have a memory like a steel cage.”

The scene may have the dystopian “what could go wrong?” undertones of science fiction at a moment when both the promise and perils of artificial intelligence are coming into sharper focus. But for the exhausted caregivers at a recent meeting in Carpi, a handsome town in Italy’s most innovative region for elder care, it pointed to a welcome, not-too-distant future when humanoids might help shrinking families share the burden of keeping the Western world’s oldest population stimulated, active and healthy.

Italy's elders:

Robots are already interacting with the old in Japan and have been used in nursing homes in the United States. But in Italy, the prototype is the latest attempt to recreate an echo of the traditional family structure that kept aging Italians at home.

The Italy of popular imagination, where multigenerational families crowd around the table on Sunday and live happily under one roof, is being buffeted by major demographic headwinds.

Low birthrates and the flight of many young adults for economic opportunities abroad has depleted the ranks of potential caregivers. Those left burdened with the care are often women, taking them out of the work force, providing a drag on the economy and, experts say, further shrinking birthrates.

Yet home care remains central to the notion of aging in a country where nursing homes exist but Italians vastly prefer finding ways to keep their old with them.

For decades, Italy avoided a serious reform of its long-term care sector by filling the gap with cheap, and often off-the-books, live-in workers, many from post-Soviet Eastern Europe — and especially Ukraine.

“That’s the long-term care pillar of this country,” said Giovanni Lamura, the director of Italy’s leading socio-economic research center on aging. “Without that, the whole system would collapse.”

There's more at the link.

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