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Will robots take care of grandma? Maybe, if she's rich

Some are heralding new technologies as the key to managing the so-called ‘silver tsunami.’ But there are significant privacy, labour and equality concerns.

A robot at the 2018 Elderly Care fair in Germany. Photo: Julian Stratenschulte/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved.Across suburban America, cheerful advertisements and roadside billboards market idyllic retirement communities and state-of-the-art facilities where grandma can live out her last days in comfort and peace. In Japan, adorable robotic seals are sold as companions for lonely seniors. A recent Amazon ad shows grandma overcome with emotion, video-chatting with distant relatives.

With the world’s population ageing at an unprecedented rate, the message seems clear: the elders are coming, and so are opportunities to profit from them. Though, of course, the realities of ageing and elder care are more complex than such upbeat images would suggest. Many families simply cannot afford the assistance their loved ones need to age with dignity.

At home, the burden of unpaid care work falls disproportionately on women  who are also overrepresented in paid care jobs, which tend to be low-wage and part-time with high turnover rates. Without sufficient support, elders may struggle even more with physical and cognitive decline and reduced autonomy.

How to manage the so-called ‘silver tsunami’ is thus a huge contemporary social and economic conundrum. For some, the answer lies in the application of new technologies  from artificial intelligence to GPS trackers. But rosy visions of how new technologies will end isolation in old age, ease burdens on caregivers, and improve quality of life, must be treated with appropriate caution.

There are significant privacy, labour and equality concerns with this approach that can’t be blindly accepted as the price of modernity.

A stuffed robot seal on the table at a care home for dementia patients. Photo: David Hecker/DPA/PA Images.“Will the robots take care of grandma?” was the subject of a recent Washington DC discussion at the AFL-CIO trade union headquarters where speakers discussed how assistive technologies (think smart devices) rather than automation (robots) could improve care for both elders and care workers.

But, they noted, care workers’ salaries, hours and benefits must also advance in order for the benefits of new technologies to be fully realised.

This is a crucial point. Care work is often considered ‘low-skilled’ with these jobs paying less and providing fewer hours and benefits than other low-wage employment  and it’s far from a foregone conclusion that technological advances will mean better wages and working conditions.

New innovations could make difficult and undervalued care work jobs easier and more desirable  for those who can access them. New tools could ease physical demands on care workers (who may frequently have to lift clients) and greater tech literacy requirements could make these jobs more prestigious.

Increased automation has been linked to job losses in other sectors like clerical work that are also dominated by women. But it seems unlikely to make home health aides or nursing assistants obsolete in the fast-growing US elder care industry, set to expand further as baby boomers retire.

More vulnerable workers, in terms of their education and skills, may not be able to keep up with new innovations, however. Increasing emphasis on care workers’ tech competency cannot be allowed to undercut the value of so-called ‘soft skills’ (such as compassion, patience, or communication).

It’s far from a foregone conclusion that technological advances will mean better wages and working conditions in this field.

There are other reasons for concern too. New technologies may require or allow care workers’ movements to be easily recorded or tracked, for instance. This could improve efficiency and safety at work, but what about privacy rights?

Across the US, undocumented immigrants are among those working in the care industry. What if routine tasks, such as reporting client updates remotely, require workers’ fingerprints as logins? Could such innovations produce new potentially mineable datasets for immigration enforcement?

There are further risks of widening inequalities among elders, and quality of life in old age, depending on different abilities to afford or access new innovations.

We’ve seen this before. Unequal access to technology has widened gaps between students at schools, for example. Digital divides between high and low income, rural and urban communities are already significant and are now widely recognised as significant barriers to equal education and work opportunities.

There are further risks of widening inequalities among elders, and quality of life in old age.

A core promise of technology evangelists is that new tools can support elders to have greater independence and longer or happier lives. But we must proceed with caution whenever new technologies are brought into intimate spaces.

Sure, voice control and hands-free devices can make some daily activities easier. But elders have been targets of scams and hackers. New technologies may collect huge amounts of detailed, personal data which can enable attacks. Devices have also captured and shared information with others by mistake.

All cultures have traditions that honour and revere their elders and caring for them is our moral imperative. Robots can’t solve innately social problems. We must invest in the women and immigrants already doing this work  and ensure the privacy and protection of vulnerable populations.

About the author

Moriah McArthur is a public health specialist and freelance writer focusing on women and community health in the United States, sub-Saharan Africa, and the Caribbean. She is based in New York City.

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