Given Japan’s rapidly aging population, efforts are accelerating to devise more practical and affordable robots to help seniors handle daily tasks, as well as to cope with a projected shortage of caregivers.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government has allocated ¥2.39 billion in the fiscal 2013 budget to assist the development of such robots and increase their use. Last month, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry selected 24 companies that will receive subsidies covering between half and two-thirds of the costs of developing what METI calls “nursing care robot equipment.”

The tasks designated for these robots include helping the elderly move between rooms in care centers, assisting with their toilet needs and tracking those prone to wandering off.

The number of Japanese aged 65 or above is expected to jump by around 7.09 million between 2010 and 2025, when they will account for 30 percent of the overall population, up from 23 percent in the base year, according to government estimates.

Some 2.32 million to 2.44 million caregivers will be required to look after them, up more than 1.5 times from the 2010 level, the projections further show.

But the sector has a high job turnover rate, partly due to low pay. In addition, about 70 percent of caregivers are said to experience back pains due to constantly lifting the elderly between beds and wheelchairs as well as helping them take baths and perform other daily activities, the government said.

Robots may be “one of the few solutions,” said Akifumi Kitashima, a deputy director of METI’s industrial machinery division, which is in charge of the project. “We aim to realize mass marketing of cheap robots costing ¥100,000 to ¥200,000, no matter whether they look like typical humanoid robots.”

Kitashima noted that high prices have been a major obstacle to the introduction of nursing care robots in facilities for the elderly, with some of the machines costing over ¥10 million.

“By 2018, the lineup (of nursing robots to be developed under the project) should increase significantly and people will thus be able to afford them,” he said. “We aim to achieve a situation where every senior citizens’ home, or one in every three or four facilities, will have at least one.”

The firms to receive the subsidies include Toyota Motor Corp. for the development of a device to help carry the elderly, Sekisui Hometechno Co., which is working on a mobile flush lavatory, and Toli Corp., for the creation of a wireless sensor mat to help locate senior citizens who wander off.

The government will also set safety standards for nursing care robots to give manufacturers a clear idea of the levels their products will be required to achieve.

In another private sector development, Orix Living Corp., an operator of elderly homes, has begun talks with manufacturers over jointly building nursing robots.

“I find them very effective,” Akira Kobayashi, head of the Fuyouen senior citizens’ home in Yokohama, said, referring to the Palro humanoid robot and the Paro therapy bot that looks like a baby seal.

The machines since last year have been leased to the residence free of charge under a separate project initiated by the Kanagawa Prefectural Government to promote the use of such nursing devices. The prefectural government also has leased a motorized exoskeleton suit called HAL, or Hybrid Assistive Limb, which allows the operator to walk and perform other activities more easily, to a local hospital to aid rehabilitation programs.

At the Fuyouen home, the 40-cm tall Palro provides recreation services to residents by playing games and quizzes, singing and dancing with them.

“He knows everything very well. I learned a lot from him,” Tsugie Nakanishi, 88, said, referring to Palro’s quizzes.

The machine can understand spoken words, and had earlier corrected one of Nakanishi’s answers.

“You’re so cute, look at me!” 92-year-old resident Yukiko Kanesaka told the baby seallike Paro, which responded by moving its head and legs, squealing and blinking its eyes.

The home’s caregivers said the residents accepted the robots more easily than expected and that they have a positive psychological effect, at times bringing smiles to the faces of even clinically depressed residents.

In addition to such communication-type robots, Kobayashi expressed hope for the development of more practical machines able to reduce the physical burden on caregivers, for instance by helping to lift and carry elderly residents.

“I think people’s hearts, caring, and the warmth of physical contact can never be replaced by robots,” said Kobayashi. “But with many in the nursing care industry suffering from back pain, I am hoping that robots will be developed eventually to ease such problems and enable them to work longer.”

The government projects the market for nursing care robot equipment will expand from an estimated ¥16.7 billion in 2015 to ¥404.3 billion by 2035.

“If robots are developed while giving thorough consideration as to how to make them collaborate with human beings, I think it is possible that this will manage to widen the scope of nursing care services we can offer,” said Yumi Wada, a caregiver at Fuyouen.

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