The elderly lady asked to hear a story. “An excellent choice,” replied the little robot, reclining like a relaxed teacher over the classroom table.
The woman leaned in, her lined forehead almost touching her smooth plastic head. “Once upon a time…” began the robot, and when he finished the short story, he asked her what the protagonist’s job was.
“Shepherd,” replied Bona Poli, 85, timidly. The robot didn’t hear very well. She rose from her chair and raised her voice. “Shepherd!” “Fantastic,” said the robot, gesturing awkwardly.
The scene may have dystopian undertones from Science fictionat a time when both the promise and the dangers of artificial intelligence are becoming clearer.
But for the weary caregivers at a recent gathering in Carpi, a beautiful town in Italy’s most innovative region in elderly care, it pointed to a welcome and not-too-distant future, when humanoids will be able to help families keep the elderly population stimulated, active and healthy.
“Squat and stretch,” said the French robot Nao, getting up and doing exercises. “Let’s move our arms and raise them high.”
The people in the room, many of them women, watched — some amused, some wary, but all eager to learn how the new technology could help them care for their elderly relatives.
Together, they listened to the robot’s calm, automated voice and provided feedback in a group representing so-called family caregivers. The aim was to help robot programmers design a more attractive and useful machine that could one day provide relief to increasingly overworked Italian families.
Italy has one of the lowest birth rates in Europe and is bracing itself for an elderly population boom. More than 7 million of the almost 60 million Italians are over 75 years old.
And 3.8 million are considered not self-sufficient. Issues such as dementia and chronic illness weigh heavily on the health care system and families.
“The revolution,” said Olimpia Pino, a professor of psychology at the University of Parma, who devised the robot project, would be if a “social robot could help with care.”
Advances in artificial intelligence would make robots more responsive, she said, keeping seniors self-sufficient longer and helping caregivers. “We have to look for all possible solutions – in this case, technological ones,” Loredana Ligabue, president of Não Só Idosos, the caregiver advocacy group, told attendees.
Robots are already interacting with the elderly in Japan and have been used in nursing homes in the US. But in Italy the prototype is the latest attempt to recreate a resemblance to the traditional family structure.
The Italy of the popular imagination, where multigenerational families cluster around the Sunday table and live happily under one roof, is being buffeted by contrary demographic events.
Low birth rates and the flight of many young adults in search of economic opportunities abroad have depleted the ranks of potential caregivers. Those who are burdened with care are often women, pushing them out of the workforce, hurting the economy and lowering birth rates.
Home care remains central to the idea of aging in a country where there are nursing homes, but Italians prefer to find ways to keep their elderly at home.
For decades, Italy has avoided serious reform of its care sector, filling the gap with cheap and often unregistered resident workers, many from post-Soviet Eastern Europe and especially Ukraine.
“This is the cornerstone of long-term care in this country,” said Giovanni Lamura, director of Italy’s leading socioeconomic research center on aging. “Without them, the whole system would collapse.”
In January, unions representing the official “badanti”, as these workers are called in Italy, won a pay raise that added about 145 euros ($200) for home care. Struggling Italians say their paychecks and pensions have not kept pace, forcing many to take care of their elderly alone.
As far as family caregivers are concerned, Italy has for decades provided government benefits to a single person in a family with a seriously ill person. At the end of this year, paid leave and other benefits could be shared with the family, which in practice means that more men will be able to help.
In Emilia-Romagna, the region that includes Carpi, there are also plans to create a workforce of carers experienced in caring for their own family members who can later, when their loved ones die, be employed to care for others. “There is huge demand,” Ligabue said.
Last week, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni celebrated the passage of a new law aimed at streamlining access to services for the elderly and bringing greater government involvement in the area.
But the law does not include specific measures to support caregivers. Alessandra Locatelli, minister responsible for the portfolio that takes care of policies for people with disabilities, said that the government did not want to prioritize people who take care of elderly family members to the detriment of those who take care of younger disabled people.
She said she hoped a new measure, by the end of the year, would provide tax breaks and other benefits for family caregivers” for “all types of non-self-sufficient people”.
But the meeting in Carpi made it clear that many Italians do not live with the parents and grandparents they care for. Some of these women were already looking for help beyond the government – at the machines.
As Nao, the French robot, made jerky movements across the table, Leonardo Saponaro, a psychology student whose grandfather had dementia, explained that the robot is “not a substitute for socializing with other people.” “However, it can keep you company.”
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