As thousands of Boomers reach an age where they need extra help to stay independent, the demand for caregivers will continue to climb. According to the Bureau of Labor, the job growth for home health aides will be 38% from 2014 to 2024 (the average job growth is just 7%). To address this growing need, tech companies are working to design home-assisted robots that can take over some care responsibilities. But what do Boomers really want in their personal home robot?
Researchers at Penn State recently studied seniors’ feelings about robots as caretakers, interviewing 45 older adults, ages 65 to 95, at a Pennsylvania senior center. S. Shyam Sundar, distinguished professor of communications and co-director of the Media Effects Research Library, and Justin Walden, a former doctoral student in mass communications, conducted the research.
The study found that seniors felt robots could be useful to provide information, help and entertainment — as long as they didn’t get too pushy. They wanted robots to wait for their commands before completing a task. The study also found that seniors’ perceptions of robots were influenced by how they’d seen them portrayed in the media, since that’s the only exposure they’d had to these electronic helpers.
So, does the Boomer generation feel similarly about robots? And how is this group’s feelings impacted by the media they’ve grown up with? In a small, unscientific survey, I asked Boomers for thoughts on their ideal robot and what they’d like it to do.
One retired computer engineer in his early 60s said that his ideal robot is J.A.R.V.I.S, Tony Stark’s home computing system in Iron Man. “This robot is very intelligent and capable. It just does what you want and doesn’t do more than that. It gives you the impression that it knows you are in charge.” However, he said that he wouldn’t mind if the robot were independent in some instances, such as if he were sick, and the robot called the doctor without needing to be asked.
Another Boomer said that her favorite robot is Rosie, the housekeeper on The Jetsons. “Rosie might not have been the sharpest crayon in the box but she cleaned the house constantly,” she said. “It’s also scary to me to imagine robots that think for themselves and I would want to maintain control over my own life.”
Her opinion was shared by another Boomer, who said, “I think I'd prefer a cute little sidekick like R2-D2 or BB-8. They seem less likely to be planning world domination. I wouldn’t want any robot monitoring my activity or making life or death decisions.”
Some popular requests: Robots that could do the shopping, cooking, household cleaning, laundry, and household maintenance.
What one Boomer wanted most wasn’t in-home automation, but something like Kitt in Knight Rider. “If I had anything robotic, it would be a self-driving car,” she said. “It can drop you off at the door of the doctor or the concert, and you don’t have to park.”
All of the Boomers I spoke to agreed: A robot can never replace human caring and compassion. One woman said, “A dog would be better companionship than a robot.” She suggested, “When you get older, it’s hard to care for a pet, so what I would like is a robot that could care for the dog for me. Then I’d have the company of the dog.” Along with people care, maybe another hot market for robots will be pet care.