Ageing Japan: Robots’ Role in Future of Elder Care

Malcolm Foster wrote . . . . . . . .

Paro the furry seal cries softly while an elderly woman pets it. Pepper, a humanoid, waves while leading a group of senior citizens in exercises. The upright Tree guides a disabled man taking shaky steps, saying in a gentle feminine voice, “right, left, well done!”

Robots have the run of Tokyo’s Shin-tomi nursing home, which uses 20 different models to care for its residents. The Japanese government hopes it will be a model for harnessing the country’s robotics expertise to help cope with a swelling elderly population and dwindling workforce.

Allowing robots to help care for the elderly – a job typically seen as requiring a human touch – may be a jarring idea in the West. But many Japanese see them positively, largely because they are depicted in popular media as friendly and helpful.

“These robots are wonderful,” said 84-year-old Kazuko Yamada after the exercise session with SoftBank Robotics Corp’s Pepper, which can carry on scripted dialogues. “More people live alone these days, and a robot can be a conversation partner for them. It will make life more fun.”

Plenty of obstacles may hinder a rapid proliferation of elder care robots: high costs, safety issues and doubts about how useful – and user-friendly – they will be.

The Japanese government has been funding development of elder care robots to help fill a projected shortfall of 380,000 specialised workers by 2025.

Despite steps by Japan to allow foreign workers in for elder care, obstacles to employment in the sector, including exams in Japanese, remain. As of the end of 2017, only 18 foreigners held nursing care visas, a new category created in 2016.

But authorities and companies here are also eyeing a larger prize: a potentially lucrative export industry supplying robots to places such as Germany, China and Italy, which face similar demographic challenges now or in the near future.

“It’s an opportunity for us,” said Atsushi Yasuda, director of the robotic policy office at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry or METI. “Other countries will follow the same trend.”

More than 100 foreign groups have visited Shin-tomi the past year from countries including China, South Korea and the Netherlands.

A few products are trickling out as exports: Panasonic Corp has started shipping its robotic bed, which transforms into a wheelchair, to Taiwan. Paro is used as a “therapy animal” in about 400 Danish senior homes.

The global market for nursing care and disabled aid robots, made up of mostly Japanese manufacturers, is still tiny: just $19.2 million in 2016, according to the International Federation of Robotics.

But METI estimates the domestic industry alone will grow to 400 billion yen ($3.8 billion) by 2035, when a third of Japan’s population will be 65 or older.

“It’s potentially a huge market,” said George Leeson, director of the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing. “Everyone is waking up to their ageing populations. Clearly robotics is part of that package to address those needs.”

To nurture the industry, the government is using a two-pronged approach. METI is promoting development, providing 4.7 billion yen ($45 million) in subsidies since 2015.

The labour ministry is spearheading the spread of robots, and spent 5.2 billion yen ($50 million) to introduce them into 5,000 facilities nationwide in the year that ended last March. There is no government data about how many care facilities use robots.

Government officials stress that robots will not replace human caregivers.

“They can assist with power, mobility and monitoring. They can’t replace humans, but they can save time and labor,” said METI’s Yasuda. “If workers have more time, they can do other tasks.”

Most of the devices look nothing like the popular image of a robot. By the government’s definition, each has three components – sensors, a processor and a motor or apparatus.

Panasonic used government aid to develop Resyone, a bed that splits in two, with one half transforming into a wheelchair.

Cyberdyne Inc’s HAL – short for Hybrid Assistive Limb – lumbar type is a powered back support that helps caregivers lift people.

Those needing walking rehabilitation can grab hold of Tree, made by unlisted Reif Co, which crawls along the ground, showing where to place the next step and offering balance support.

SoftBank’s Pepper is used in about 500 Japanese elder care homes for games, exercise routines and rudimentary conversations.

But some workers find Pepper difficult to set up, said Shohei Fujiwara, a manager at SoftBank Robotics, a unit of Internet conglomerate SoftBank Group Corp. They’d like Pepper to respond to voice commands and move around independently – functions that SoftBank hopes to introduce this year, he said.

Cute, furry and responsive, Paro reacts to touch, speech and light by moving its head, blinking its eyes and playing recordings of Canadian harp seal cries.

“When I first petted it, it moved in such a cute way. It really seemed like it was alive,” giggled 79-year-old Saki Sakamoto, a Shin-tomi resident. “Once I touched it, I couldn’t let go.”

Paro took more than 10 years to develop and received about $20 million in government support, said its inventor, Takanori Shibata, chief research scientist at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology. About 5,000 are in use globally, including 3,000 in Japan.

But Paro, like most robots, is expensive: 400,000 yen ($3,800) in Japan and about 5,000 euros in Europe. Panasonic’s Resyone bed costs 900,000 yen ($8,600) and Cyberdyne’s HAL lumbar exoskeleton costs 100,000 yen ($950) a month to rent.

Most facilities using them, including Shin-tomi, have relied on local and central government subsidies to help cover the costs. Individuals can also use nursing care insurance to help cover approved products, but those numbers are tiny.

And so far, the robots have not reduced Shin-tomi’s personnel costs or working hours.

“We haven’t gotten that far yet,” said Kimiya Ishikawa, president and CEO of Silverwing Social Welfare Corp, which runs Shin-tomi. “We brought them in mostly to improve the working environment, keep staffers from getting back injuries and make things safer.”

What they have done, he said, is boost the morale of both staff and residents.

“That’s brought a peace of mind among the staff and the residents feel supported,” he said.

Source : Reuters

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Lack of Sleep May be Linked to Risk Factor for Alzheimer’s Disease

Losing just one night of sleep led to an immediate increase in beta-amyloid, a protein in the brain associated with Alzheimer’s disease, according to a small, new study by researchers at the National Institutes of Health. In Alzheimer’s disease, beta-amyloid proteins clump together to form amyloid plaques, a hallmark of the disease.

While acute sleep deprivation is known to elevate brain beta-amyloid levels in mice, less is known about the impact of sleep deprivation on beta-amyloid accumulation in the human brain. The study is among the first to demonstrate that sleep may play an important role in human beta-amyloid clearance.

“This research provides new insight about the potentially harmful effects of a lack of sleep on the brain and has implications for better characterizing the pathology of Alzheimer’s disease,” said George F. Koob, Ph.D., director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), part of the National Institutes of Health, which funded the study.

Beta-amyloid is a metabolic waste product present in the fluid between brain cells. In Alzheimer’s disease, beta-amyloid clumps together to form amyloid plaques, negatively impacting communication between neurons.

Led by Drs. Ehsan Shokri-Kojori and Nora D. Volkow of the NIAAA Laboratory of Neuroimaging, the study is now online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Dr. Volkow is also the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse at NIH.

To understand the possible link between beta-amyloid accumulation and sleep, the researchers used positron emission tomography (PET) to scan the brains of 20 healthy subjects, ranging in age from 22 to 72, after a night of rested sleep and after sleep deprivation (being awake for about 31 hours). They found beta-amyloid increases of about 5 percent after losing a night of sleep in brain regions including the thalamus and hippocampus, regions especially vulnerable to damage in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

In Alzheimer’s disease, beta-amyloid is estimated to increase about 43 percent in affected individuals relative to healthy older adults. It is unknown whether the increase in beta-amyloid in the study participants would subside after a night of rest.

The researchers also found that study participants with larger increases in beta-amyloid reported worse mood after sleep deprivation.

“Even though our sample was small, this study demonstrated the negative effect of sleep deprivation on beta-amyloid burden in the human brain. Future studies are needed to assess the generalizability to a larger and more diverse population,” said Dr. Shokri-Kojori.

It is also important to note that the link between sleep disorders and Alzheimer’s risk is considered by many scientists to be “bidirectional,” since elevated beta-amyloid may also lead to sleep disturbances.

Source : National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism


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Video: Tasty and Soft Food for Elderly

Watch video at You Tube (4:36 minutes) . . . . .

Choosing Healthy Meals As You Get Older


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Making healthy food choices is a smart thing to do—no matter how old you are! Your body changes through your 60s, 70s, 80s, and beyond. Food provides nutrients you need as you age. Use these tips to choose foods for better health at each stage of life.

1. Drink plenty of liquids

With age, you may lose some of your sense of thirst. Drink water often. Low-fat or fat-free milk or 100% juice also helps you stay hydrated. Limit beverages that have lots of added sugars or salt. Learn which liquids are better choices.

2. Make eating a social event

Meals are more enjoyable when you eat with others. Invite a friend to join you or take part in a potluck at least twice a week. A senior center or place of worship may offer meals that are shared with others. There are many ways to make mealtimes pleasing.

3. Plan healthy meals

Find trusted nutrition information from ChooseMyPlate.gov and the National Institute on Aging. Get advice on what to eat, how much to eat, and which foods to choose, all based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Find sensible, flexible ways to choose and prepare tasty meals so you can eat foods you need.

4. Know how much to eat

Learn to recognize how much to eat so you can control portion size. When eating out, pack part of your meal to eat later. One restaurant dish might be enough for two meals or more.

5. Vary your vegetablesMan holding a box of lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, and beets

Include a variety of different colored vegetables to brighten your plate. Most vegetables are a low-calorie source of nutrients. Vegetables are also a good source of fiber.

6. Eat for your teeth and gums

Many people find that their teeth and gums change as they age. People with dental problems sometimes find it hard to chew fruits, vegetables, or meats. Don’t miss out on needed nutrients! Eating softer foods can help. Try cooked or canned foods like unsweetened fruit, low-sodium soups, or canned tuna.

7. Use herbs and spices

Foods may seem to lose their flavor as you age. If favorite dishes taste different, it may not be the cook! Maybe your sense of smell, sense of taste, or both have changed. Medicines may also change how foods taste. Add flavor to your meals with herbs and spices.

8. Keep food safe

Don’t take a chance with your health. A food-related illness can be life threatening for an older person. Throw out food that might not be safe. Avoid certain foods that are always risky for an older person, such as unpasteurized dairy foods. Other foods can be harmful to you when they are raw or undercooked, such as eggs, sprouts, fish, shellfish, meat, or poultry.

9. Read the Nutrition Facts label

Make the right choices when buying food. Pay attention to important nutrients to know as well as calories, fats, sodium, and the rest of the Nutrition Facts label. Ask your doctor if there are ingredients and nutrients you might need to limit or to increase.

10. Ask your doctor about vitamins or supplements

Food is the best way to get nutrients you need. Should you take vitamins or other pills or powders with herbs and minerals? These are called dietary supplements. Your doctor will know if you need them. More may not be better. Some can interfere with your medicines or affect your medical conditions.

Source: National Institutes of Health

Older Adults Who Have Slower Walking Speeds May Have Increased Risk for Dementia

As of 2015, nearly 47 million people around the world had dementia, a memory problem significant enough to affect your ability to carry out your usual tasks. The most common cause of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease, but other forms exist, too.

Because there’s currently no cure for dementia, it’s important to know about the risk factors that may lead to developing it. For example, researchers have learned that older adults with slower walking speeds seem to have a greater risk of dementia than those with faster walking speeds. Recently, researchers from the United Kingdom teamed up to learn more about changes in walking speed, changes in the ability to think and make decisions, and dementia. They published their study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

The researchers examined information collected from the English Longitudinal Study of Aging. The study included adults aged 60 and older who lived in England. In their study, the researchers used information collected from 2002 to 2015. They assessed participants’ walking speed on two occasions in 2002-2003 and in 2004-2005, and whether or not the participants developed dementia after the tests from 2006-2015. Then, they compared the people who had developed dementia with those who had not.

Researchers discovered that of the nearly 4,000 older adults they studied, those with a slower walking speed had a greater risk of developing dementia. And people who experienced a faster decline in walking speed over a two-year period were also at higher risk for dementia. People who had a poorer ability to think and make decisions when they entered the study—and those whose cognitive (thinking) abilities declined more quickly during the study—were also more likely to be diagnosed with dementia.

The researchers concluded that older adults with slower walking speeds, and those who experienced a greater decline in their walking speed over time, were at increased risk for dementia. But, the researchers noted, changes in walking speed and changes in an older adult’s ability to think and make decisions do not necessarily work together to affect the risk of developing dementia.

Source: The AGS Foundation for Health in Aging


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