Robots are to be deployed at care homes across the UK after an international trial discovered they can have a profound effect on mental health and loneliness. The machines, which can hold simple conversations and learn about the interests of individuals, could help a stretched social care system tackle these issues.
Scientists at the University of Bedfordshire said that there was no intention for the robots to replace staff, but to keep residents company during lonely periods. They found that the culturally independent machines could start rudimentary conversations, play favourite music and offer practical help like medicine reminders after a little programming.
The robots chosen for the study are particularly lifelike and known as Pepper. They move around independently on a set of wheels and can gesture using their arms and hands. Despite this, some participants in the study noted the conversations were more superficial than they would have liked.
Older adults living in care homes who had contact with the robots for up to 18 hours over the course of two weeks displayed a significantly improved mental health situation in the trial. The academics in the UK and Japan also found a small but positive improvement in terms of loneliness among participants.
Irena Papadopoulos, a professor of transcultural health and nursing at the University of Middlesex, said: “Socially assistive, intelligent robots for older people could relieve some pressures in hospitals and care homes.
“No one is talking about replacing humans – the evaluation demonstrates that we are a long way from doing that – but it also reveals that robots could support existing care systems. While results demonstrate that our experimental robot was more culturally competent to users, they also reveal that there is room for improvement.”
Having enough staff to perform all the vital roles in care homes, as well as those to entertain and support residents’ emotional needs is a constant challenge. Prior to the coronavirus outbreak in the UK, there were 120,000 vacancies in the care industry and this has only been exacerbated by the pandemic.
Adding to the issue of loneliness is the inability to freely allow visitors into care homes to sit and chat with their relatives. Staff have been working hard to ensure facilities remain COVID-19-free, but this comes at the cost of allowing face-to-face meetings indoors.