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‘Robot and Frank’ might be on to something

There’s a tender, instructive film about aging you will not find at your nearby theater. Released in 2012, it’s touted as a “near-futuristic” science-fiction-comedy-drama. It’s quirky and compelling.

“Robot and Frank” stars an elder named Frank who is living alone and experiencing increasing mental deterioration. His adult son decides a robot might be the answer to the family’s caregiving burden. Dad is initially very resistant, of course, but he comes around to the idea and leverages it in unexpected and engaging ways. Robot is so successful at partnering with Frank in unanticipated ventures, there is a point in the film when Robot must offer the reminder, “Frank, I know you don’t want to hear this but I am not a person.”

That captivating movie reinforces my long-held belief that robots have the potential to be a significant part of healthy and active aging. My vision involves a handsome, personable robot caregiver that treks through our neighborhood taking advantage of curb cuts and no-threshold accessibility to offer services in not just our home but several other homes.

“Our” neighborhood robot would make lunch daily for one 90-something neighbor and roll up to her kitchen table with a colorful plate of food, at the same time calling up a picture of her out-of-state daughter on the TV screen on its robotic face. The daughter would say things like, “Mom, I am so glad to see you’re eating more fruits and vegetables.” And the happy elder would smile at her great-grandchildren in the background as she enjoyed her broccoli and pineapple — and drank her peppermint tea.

Then our Caregiver Robot would roll down the street to another neighbor’s home to do their laundry and perhaps assist with organizing or dispensing medications. At the end of the day, Robotic Caregiver would come back to our house to make dinner and lock into a docking station. Can you see it?

I believe robots can be a big part of the answer to the caregiving shortage we are experiencing — one that will dramatically worsen as the aging demographic explodes. If you are not quite there yet, start by thinking about robotic pets. There’s a lovely article, “Robotic Pets: Maybe Even Better Than the Real Thing” online at www.nextavenue.org that outlines what’s new in terms of four-legged robotic companions. The new Hasbro cats apparently come in various colors: orange, creamy white and “Silver Cat with White Mitts.”

Frankly, I do not like cats much, and my husband is allergic, so I had not thought about their potential value until I read about the super-soft, purring robotic feline that sat on the lap of an agitated elder who had a history of bolting from her wheelchair and injuring herself but was quietly content when she was petting “Silver Cat with White Mittens.”

If I were a wheelchair user, I think I would opt for the interactive Hasbro dog called “Golden Pup.” I like the idea of allergy-free companionship with the lessened fall hazard of random dog toys on the floor. No need to feed, walk or clean up after that pup. And our real-live pooch could use a friend. But then, don’t we all?

Sharon Johnson is an associate professor emeritus, Oregon State University, and the author of “How Gray in My Valley: Enlightened Observations About Being Old.” Reach her at Sharon@agefriendlyinnovators.org

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