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Japan’s nursing facilities using humanoid robots, IT to improve lives, safety of elderly

Kyodo

Humanoid robots and advances in information technology are increasingly being used by nursing homes in a bid to give elderly people a better quality of life.

In one example, a nursing home in Natori, Miyagi Prefecture, has enlisted the help of the Telenoid robot via which people can communicate remotely with an elderly person using a microphone and camera.

“Grandma, what color flowers do you like?” the Telenoid robot asked a resident in her 80s at the Urayasu elderly nursing home last month. “Pink cherry blossoms,” the woman responded with a smile.

Telenoid, which weighs 2.7 kg and is 50 cm tall, was developed by Osaka University professor Hiroshi Ishiguro and his associates. Urayasu became the first nursing home nationwide to use the humanoid in February.

The humanoid has nubs for hands and feet, a faceless expression, no age, and is sexless — features included to allow users to focus on expressing themselves more thoroughly.

The microphone and camera captures the voice and movements of the person and projects them through Telenoid. It has a robotic voice and can move its head from side to side.

Maki Hashimoto, a 31-year-old staffer at the nursing home, said a resident who used to be irritable has changed her disposition for the better. “She makes (mild) gestures now,” Hashimoto said.

The nursing home said people in the advanced stages of dementia, in particular, are convinced of Telenoid’s human qualities. In a trial of Telenoid at another facility, an elderly person whose young son died decades ago was brought to tears, apparently because of the interaction with the humanoid.

Utako Miyazaki, who is leading an effort with a Kyoto-based company to popularize the humanoids, said Telenoid can help with “sustainability and improvement in … cognitive functions.”

Along with the humanoid, a smartphone app has been developed by Sapporo-based company Safety Net Linkage to help family members or nursing facilities track down people with dementia who have gone missing.

Called “Mimamori Eye” (“Watching Over”), families or nursing facilities can register an elderly person, detailing their physical features, with the option of providing a facial photo. People from the community who wish to get involved can download the app and register their own email address.

When a search request is made, information on the missing person can be sent to pre-registered smartphones within a 20-km radius. The company has set up a hotline for people to directly call the party that commenced the search if a missing person is found.

The service is free and is already being employed in Hachioji in Tokyo and Fuefuki in Yamanashi Prefecture. Kashiwa in Chiba Prefecture is also planning to introduce the system.

“We want to develop this broad framework across municipalities nationwide,” said Tatsuya Takahara, a director at Safety Net Linkage.

In other developments, systems are already in place that use facial recognition or sensors that sound alarms when an elderly person has left a bed, while other devices are used to lessen the burden of nursing care.

After conducting an analysis on data collected, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry is considering rewarding businesses that incorporate robots as part of a revision for long-term care fees in fiscal 2018.