How Best To Protect The Elderly?

The percentage of our population that is elderly — and often infirm as well — is growing.  As that percentage of the population grows, the number of elderly who are hoodwinked out of their retirement nest egg, neglected, or emotionally or physically abused, is growing steadily as well.

Senior abuse is a tough problem to quantify.  Statistics, surveys, and expert opinions vary, with estimates of victims numbering in the millions, but the reality is hard to grasp because the problem is largely a hidden one.  Many seniors spend their time indoors — due to health or choice — and aren’t seen in public often.  How are neighbors to know if the apparently devoted son who stops by every second day isn’t abusing his confused mother and looting her bank account?  How many seniors are too embarrassed and ashamed by their treatment to confess that their niece or grandson is threatening and assaulting them?  And there is a definitional problem, too.  How do you treat the fiercely independent older couple where the husband insists he can care for his ailing wife, but family friends notice their hygiene and general health noticeably slipping?  Are they being neglected, or is their fervent wish for independence simply being honored?  How are we to know, too, if the money that is vanishing from the aging parent’s bank account is disappearing due to fraud, or to a legitimate wish to help relatives who are down on their luck, or to pay for an expensive form of treatment or drug therapy?

The elderly are a ripe target for crime and abuse.  They often have life savings to plunder, and they receive a monthly Social Security check.  They may be weak, wheelchair-bound, or suffering through the early stages of debilitating mental or physical illness.  Their social support network of friends, family, and co-workers may have fallen away as a result of retirements, departures to warmer climates, and deaths.  If a relative moves in to help Great Aunt Alice, is it a wonderful act of human kindness or a precursor to abuse and financial exploitation?

There’s always pressure for a federal solution, but it’s hard to see how a national bureaucracy could effectively address this problem.  The best answer seems to be vigilant neighbors, friends, and family members who are alert to signs of abuse and willing to report their suspicions to local authorities.  Financial fraud is a crime, as is physical assault, and they should be treated and prosecuted as such.  We should all be observant and sensitive to seniors who may desperately need our help and who deserve not to be terrorized or defrauded in their twilight years.

Rejecting Robot Caregivers

Japan has a problem.  It has a rapidly aging population of senior citizens and not enough younger people to care for them (or for that matter to contribute to the social welfare programs that support them, but that’s another story).

Ri-Man

Japan had hoped that robots would be the answer.  They envisioned robots that would care for the elderly and staff nursing homes and hospitals.  They have developed robots like Ri-Man, which can lift and carry hobbled senior citizens, and robots to serve as guides in hospitals.  Manufacturers have sunk millions of dollars into efforts to develop such robots.  Now they have concluded that robots are too expensive and impractical — and, even more important, are unwanted by patients and unwelcome, even in robot-friendly Japan.  As one person plaintively said:  “We want humans caring for us, not machines.”

No one should be surprised by this reaction.  It is not just because Ri-Man and the other caregiving robots look like full-scale toys or embarrassing caricatures of the robot from The Day The Earth Stood Still.  Instead, the breathless and triumphal tone of the video introducing Ri-Man, below, demonstrates the disconnect between the views of the entrepreneurs and engineers developing the robots and the seniors who are supposed to be buying them.  Elder care isn’t about technological advances or new frontiers in the science of robotics.  Instead, it is about helping human beings who are failing and who seek companionship and comfort as they decline.  Having to rely only on robots for help would be sterile and depressing. 

The elderly want to know that there is some person who cares enough about them to help them and spend time with them.  Can anyone blame them for concluding that metal and plastic robots are no substitute for a meaningful human connection?