Assistive robots in elderly care: social or anti-social?

An article by Maria Tsfasman

The percentage of elderly people in the world is growing, and we need more and more workforce in nursing homes. Robots are gradually replacing caretakers in different aspects of their jobs. This raises various ethical concerns on what it can lead to. One of the concerns is that robots can deprive elderly from human love and care by reducing contact with human nurses. In this blogpost, I will discuss different aspects of these concerns, and possible solutions to this problem.

Concerns about assistive robots

With ageing people tend to lose social connections, which leads to depression and growing feeling of loneliness. Not only does social interaction affect emotional state of senior people, but it also decreases the risk of dementia (Saczynski et al., 2006). When there are not enough caregivers in retirement homes to fulfil such needs, what option are we left with? We live in an age when robotic nurses for elderly people do not seem futuristic anymore. Intelligent machines can serve as medical tools, soothing toys, and even health care assistants themselves(Broekens, Heerink, and Rosendal, 2009). On the one hand, it might create a beautiful world where every elderly is carefully looked after and provided with a buddy to talk to. Robotic assistants can call 911 in the case of emergency, keep track of medication schedules, assist a person in the bathroom, and even initialize and maintain a conversation. On the other hand, robots cannot substitute human attention and love, at least in the present and near future state of the art. By delegating elderly care to the hands of intelligent machines we might deprive older generation from human care and attention.

In this blog-post I will discuss two concerns about robots in elderly care:

  1. the potential reduction in the amount of human contact
  2. the potential degradation of social skills caused by the first concern

Sharkey and Sharkey (2010) categorize eldercare robots in three groups by the type of care they provide: (i) Assistance; (ii) Monitoring, and (iii) Companionship. For now, I will disregard monitoring robots, as I focus on social aspects of robots and assume that monitoring robots do not usually include that component.

Why be concerned?

Sharkey and Sharkey (2010) formulate the main cause of concerns about assistive robots as ’objectification of elderly’ by robots producers and stakeholders. The problem is that when constructing assistive robots sometimes the aim is to reduce spends and workload of the nurses, rather than improving quality of patients’ lives. In my opinion, a more severe problem is the whole idea of trying to substitute nurses with the robots, which inevitably would lead to depriving elderly people from human contact as such. What I suggest, considering the objective of assistive robots, is delegating manual labor to robots to free nurses for emotional support of the elderly patients. If we do not substitute, but change responsibilities, the whole robot-support world can be nice to live and age in. The second cause of concerns is that if assistant robots are able to take care of the elderly, their relatives would feel less motivated in visiting(Sharkey and Sharkey, 2010). In other words, if elderly patients are well taken care of and do not need any help, why visit? However, this concern seems to me less robot-specific than any other. The same problem appears when a family puts their elderly members into a retirement home in general. Such action can give family a feeling of delegating their responsibility to the professionals, and therefore an illusion of help and attention being unnecessary.

What do numbers say?

Although the concerns seem to be reasonable, let’s take a look at how robot-companions affect elderly people and their perception of life. In general, robots show a positive effect on emotional and social state of elderly patients (Broekens, Heerink, and Rosendal, 2009). Tamura et al. (2004) have shown that robot toys help patients with dementia. In Kanamori, Suzuki, and Tanaka (2002) robot-seal Paro (see video) made patients of the Suisyoen retirement home less lonely and increased their sociability. The effect might be positive not only because of the robots’ capabilities but also because patients now had a common topic to talk about. Knowing this, we can assume that robots are more likely to improve elderly patients’ social skills than cause their degradation. It would be also very interesting to examine the effect of a robot able to maintain a conversation. However, such robots are not yet available in assistive care use.

Assistive robots: good or bad?

In conclusion, how can robots affect elderly people with respect to social interaction and skills? On the one side, robots can sufficiently reduce the amount of human contact for elderly, especially if all the care is performed by robots instead of human caregivers. Some people are also concerned about families being less motivated to visit their elder members as they would feel less needed. In my opinion, the main flow in these concerns is the idea of substituting nurses by robots. What it should be viewed like is delegating physical work to robots, freeing caretakers some time to emotionally assist elderly people, and organize various social activities for them. That would alleviate our concerns about reduction in the amount of human interaction and degradation of social skills in elderly people. Happy to say, the research conducted in the area so far gives promising results. Let’s hope that robots will continue bringing joy and happiness to the world rather than make humans anti-social!


Broekens, Joost, Marcel Heerink, and Henk Rosendal (2009). “Assistive social robots in elderly care: A review”. In: Gerontechnology 8, pp. 94–103. doi: 10.4017/gt.2009.

Kanamori, Masao, Mizue Suzuki, and Misao Tanaka (2002). “Maintenance and improvement of quality of life among elderly patients using a pet-type robot.” In: Nihon Ronen Igakkai zasshi. Japanese journal of geriatrics 39-2, pp. 214–8.

Saczynski, Jane S. et al. (2006). “The Effect of Social Engagement on Incident Dementia The Honolulu-Asia Aging Study”. In: American Journal of Epidemiology 163.5, pp. 433–440. doi: 10.1093/aje/kwj061.

Sharkey, Amanda and Noel Sharkey (2010). “Granny and the robots: Ethical issues in robot care for the elderly”. In: Ethics and Information Technology 14, pp. 27–40. doi: 10.1007/s10676-010-9234-6.

Tamura, T. et al. (2004). “Is an entertainment robot useful in the care of elderly people with severe dementia?” In: A Biol Sci Med Sci 59-1, pp. 83–95.

About Maria Tsfasman

Maria Tsfasman is currently obtaining a Masters Degree in Artificial Intelligence at Radboud University, Nijmegen.

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