Should Robots Be Our Grandma's New Friend?

Hasbro hopes to capture the massive and growing lonely elderly market

Posted Dec 24, 2015

Who will care for aging baby-boomers?  Physical therapists and home-health aides are projected to be among the fastest growing occupations of the next decade.  But care is more than direct medical services, it’s also companionship, and the market is rushing in to provide innovative solutions. 

Source: Vincent_Willem_van_Gogh-WikimediaCommons

I’m talking about electronic pets--not Talking Barbie, but PARO, the furry interactive robotic seal designed for the elderly.  It may seem silly, but PARO is in high demand.  At $5,000 a seal, it’s not cheap, but may be worth the high cost.  People with robotic pets report lower levels of depression and take less medicine than those without.  Until recently, however, the cost of a robot companion was prohibitive for most retirees.

Just in time for Christmas, Hasbro released a budget line of lifelike robotic companion pets, “Joy for All,” robotic cats that go for only $100.  Joy for All provides the same physiological benefits as PARO, but at a much lower cost.  It can be taken anywhere comfort and companionship may be needed and - best of all - won’t cause allergies, whine, poop, or bite.

Along with armies of nurses and home health aides, robotic pets can attend to the needs of our aging population, right? Not so fast. They have what many call a “creep factor.”  One peppy positive article in Ad Week called Joy for All “Hasbro’s weird robot cat.”  These robot friends may also reinforce marginalization and loneliness.  Critics  fear people with low status - the elderly with dementia, for instance, who are pretty far down the social hierarchy -  may get stuck with robot pets as a poor substitute for the human companionship they need.

The real judge in a market economy is if it sells. Though Medicare covers some of the cost -  Paros are Class 2 medical devices, the same as wheelchairs - it remains to be seen whether people will overcome the sad factor and buy one for Grandma.  As low-cost alternatives are introduced and the psychological benefits of artificial intelligence (A.I.) companions are recognized, I won’t be surprised if we see a lot more robotic cats, dogs, seals, and turtles in the next few years. 

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