The Future of Aging


“The future of aging is in robots.”

My heart sank when the presenter uttered those words.

Kathy and I attended a conference on aging in Toronto, Ontario in July 2018 and the keynote speaker was a recognized authority on incorporating robots in caring for our seniors.

Her position was that robots would become the “new caregiver” and replace the need for human caregivers.

Seniors would never have to feel lonely and isolated again, as long as they had robot XJ49-B in their home.

Based on how everyone in the audience was clapping and cheering, you would have thought they’d announced a cure for cancer.

To be clear, I love technology.

I have every type of gadget and I’m always curious about new innovations, but as I was listening to the presenter, I knew in my gut that there was something fundamentally flawed with believing that robots can replace the compassion and caring of human caregivers.

Here’s why I believe that:

  1. As human beings we are wired for human interaction and there is something magical that happens, energetically, when two people connect. Whether it be in words or in touch. The nuances of human behavior are so sophisticated, that it’s beyond the processing capability of machines.
  2. There is an inherent “power imbalance” between a robot and a senior. The robot is technically in charge and will determine when the senior eats, takes their medications or goes to bed. No matter what mood the senior is in, the robot will override the senior, based on its programming.
    Instead of empowering seniors, we are relegating them to be subservient to robots.
  3. There’s also a power imbalance based on the person who programs the robot. The programmer assumes they know what is best for the senior.

I wish I could remember the documentary I watched between a senior woman and a robot caregiver. It was an amazing film (when I find it I’ll post a link). The woman was clearly lonely and isolated. She had lost her husband of many years and she was struggling to get through her days. She was sad and depressed. The robot would follow her around and at meal time, it would badger her by thrusting a spoon toward her mouth. In the scene, the woman had no interest in eating, but the robot didn’t understand that. It kept trying to fulfill its programming. The next scene showed the woman lying in bed, in the dark, and when she opens her eyes, the robot’s face is hovering 2 inches above hers. She screams and the robot tells her it was checking her vital signs.

The documentary ends with the woman having a slow dance with the robot. It was a strange and poignant scene, but it beautifully illustrated what the woman really wanted. She wanted to be held and do what she had done, many times, with her husband. The robot was completely oblivious.

As we search for ways to make the experience of aging better for seniors, there will be a natural tendency to look for technological solutions. They are easy and convenient and once they are in place, they run themselves (at least until the batteries run out). But they don’t satisfy the most fundamental need we have as human beings. The need for compassion and connection with other human beings.

I’m all for labour-saving devices, but when it comes to caregiving and helping seniors cope with loneliness and isolation, I will take a human over a machine any day.

What do you think about this?

As a child I was once taken to a concert, and I remember little of it except for the song lyrics, “this is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius”.  I wondered at the time, what is an “age of” something, and how do you know it’s dawning?

Well, I’m going to tell you that this is the dawning of the age of wellbeing.

In your own mind, think about present attitudes towards aging?  What words come to mind?  Write down ten of them.  I bet that most of them are negative, or involve apprehension.

It doesn’t have to be that way.  Like me, you are probably a person with years of career experience.  You’ve probably been extremely independent, made your own choices about family, travel, relationships, finances. You may have even finished university, or achieved a professional certification.  Do you want to give that all up at some magic “age” number?  No way!  Like me,  you plan to live a full life for as long as possible, involving lifelong learning, fun, friendships, and independent decision-making.  You’ll want to do everything you can to stay active, engaged, and cognitively healthy.

I’m happy to have you along with me as we explore the new ways we’ll together create and negotiate a new way of aging.

I’ll be writing lots of posts in the coming months, so click the Subscribe button below and send me your comments and suggested topics along the way!

Thrive, what a perfect word to describe a positive way of aging that we can strive for.

“Through wise eyes: Thriving elder women’s perspectives on thriving in elder adulthood” is an article that grabbed my attention this past weekend.

Its author is Beverly Hardcastle Stanford, a professor emerita of Human Development. She starts by saying that “the rising wave of elders alive today promise(s) significant changes in how we view and live out our old age.”  She summarizes various studies and notes the need for society to look at old age as a period of creativity and productivity, a time when people have more time (sans homework, career work, driving kids around, etc.) to use their accumulated knowledge and wisdom to mentor and care for others.

What else is involved in thriving?  Feeling well, even if you’re not.  At first I thought, what? But, she explains that subjective feelings of wellbeing are more important than objective ones.  Your doctor might tell you that you have this or that disorder, but if you believe that despite all that, life is great, then you are more likely to thrive. “I’m happy to be as active as I am,” said one study participant, for example.

A group of elders was asked to offer advice to the next generation.  I’m going to include the whole list of themes because I think we can discuss them in more detail in future blog posts.  The elders referred to:

(a) vital involvement and service; (b) desire to continue
learning, (c) appreciation of family, health, home, and financial
security, (d) valuing honesty and responsibility, (e) a positive attitude,
and (f) a reliance on faith.

(I highlighted item b because that theme seems to come up often.  Lifelong learning, my personal passion.  I know that’ll be an easy one for me to focus on as I grow older.)

The author asked the study participants why they were thriving, some said that
thriving needs to be intentionally sought“.  I thought this was powerful and amazing advice!  You have to make a conscious decision to thrive, to choose it when other options are available (being miserable, giving up, withdrawing, refusing to learn new things, etc.).  ” It’s very easy to get into a slump and just sit around the house
and watch television,” said one woman, who “pushes herself” to volunteer and go to museums and movies.

Were the women in the study just lucky to have had easy lives, making it easy to be so positive?  No.  The author interviewed them in detail to learn that most of them had experienced various types of trauma and loss throughout their lives.  The key point was their intentionality to thrive.   Thriving in older age doesn’t just happen.  You have to work at it.

There’s so much in this article to discuss further, so let’s keep referring back to it!  For now, tell me about what intentions YOU have to thrive as you get older?  Which of the themes (a) to (f) above seem to resonate most strongly with you?  Post your comments below!

(The English teacher in me requires I give the full citation for this article:

Stanford, B. H. (2006). Through wise eyes: Thriving elder women’s perspectives on thriving in elder adulthood. Educational Gerontology, 32(10), 881-905. doi:10.1080/03601270600846709)