A robot that can help your grandma (or you) avoid the nursing home

As baby boomers age and retire, they’ll be confronted with a really tough choice: Pony up for extremely expensive assisted-care or full-care facilities or stay at home and rely on family or outside help as needed. Ask any aging person their preference, and you’ll see that the “age in home” option is the winner both in economic and psychological terms. The AARP estimates that 84 percent of respondents want to remain in their homes.

Willow Garage’s Personal Robot 2 with two friends.

The good news is that, relatively soon,  it looks like there will be tech options — including in-home robots — that can help them stay put.

The technology is getting more adaptable and more affordable. Rethink Robotics sells Baxter, an industrial robot, for $22,000 now and, with the advent of a new software development kit, Baxter could be adapted for new markets. Rethink’s CTO and founder Rodney Brooks hopes that geriatric care will be one of them.  Speaking at the Techonomy Conference last week, Brooks said:

“I think absolutely elder care is going to be an incredible pull on automation technology, because people want to stay in their homes longer, and the demographics is much more older people. This, by the way, is true in China now too. You know, a young Chinese person now has two parents and four grandparents who don’t have anyone else but that person.”

So there’s … going to be a real pull for how technology lets people be independent longer. And I’m hoping that someone will come up with some provocative things with Baxter for that.”

 Research: Older Americans are receptive to robotic help

Technology is one thing. The willingness to use it is another. And new research out of Georgia Tech  shows that acceptance of in-home robot help among older people may be growing. Researcher Cory-Ann Smarr, a PhD candidate in Engineering Psychology at the school, said a survey of 21 people between the ages of 65 and 93, showed them open to using robots for some tasks — but also very picky about which tasks those would be.

“They were fine with a robot reminding them to take their medications but not so fine about a robot telling them what medications to take,” Smarr told me in a recent interview.

Most of the respondents — who were shown a video of the Willow Garage PR-2 robot performing jobs — seemed pretty tech savvy already.  Most were proficient users of cell phones, recordable and programmable devices like thermostats and coffee makers. Most (71.4 percent) said they used a computer so these respondents were not tech neophytes and may not be typical of older seniors in the broader population. Recent Pew Research on smartphone ownership found that just 11 percent of adults over the age of 65 have smartphones, compared to 34 percent of those aged 50 to 64 year. Still, it’s interesting that they did not shoot down the notion of a robot helper.

While there’s been talk of robots in the home for decades — Roomba helped blaze the trail — there’s really nothing out there that looks like a robotic butler or maid. But given the economics of aging, the option of staying in a home that’s paid for versus selling that home to pay for facility living is undoubtedly attractive. Since assisted care facilities can cost anywhere from $1,500 to $5,000 per month, the notion of buying a $22,000 robot — assisted at times by human helpers — might not be beyond the pale.

And more people will face that choice than ever. The most recent U.S. census data shows that the percentage of Americans over the age of 62 grew 21.1 percent between 2000 and 2010 — the second fastest growing demographic after the 45 to 64 year age group which grew 31.5 percent in that period. And, the AARP estimates that the number of US adults over the age of 65 will nearly double in the next 20 years.

Companies that can build adaptable and afforable robots to fill this growing need could be big, big winners going forward.