Ro­bot a glimpse of nurs­ing home fu­ture

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - News - BY ADAM SA­TAR­I­ANO, ELIAN PELTIER AND DMITRY KOSTYUKOV New York Times

Zora might not look like much – more cute toy than fu­tur­is­tic­mar­vel – but this ro­bot is at the cen­ter of an ex­per­i­ment in France to change care for el­derly pa­tients.

When Zora ar­rived at a nurs­ing fa­cil­ity an hour out­side Paris, a strange thing be­gan hap­pen­ing: Many pa­tients de­vel­oped an emo­tional at­tach­ment, treat­ing it like a baby, hold­ing and coo­ing, giv­ing it kisses on the head.

Zora, which can cost up to $18,000, of­fered com­pan­ion­ship in a place where life can be lonely. Fam­i­lies can visit only so much, and staffmem­bers are stretched.

Pa­tients at the hos­pi­tal, called Jouarre, have de­men­tia and other con­di­tions that re­quire roundthe-clock care.

The nurse at Jouarre who over­sees Zora con­trols the ro­bot from a lap­top. He of­ten stands out of view so pa­tients don’t know it’s him at the con­trols.

The ro­bot can have a con­ver­sa­tion be­cause the nurse types words into a lap­top for the ro­bot to speak. Some pa­tients re­fer to Zora as “she,” oth­ers “he.”

Zora of­ten leads ex­er­cises and plays games.

Not ev­ery­one is en­am­ored. Robotics still has a long way to go be­fore there’s a re­al­is­tic chance of hav­ing a hu­manoid nurse.

Zora doesn’t dis­pense medicine, take blood pres­sure or change bed­sheets. At Jouarre, Zora was viewed by some as a su­per­flu­ous tool that just “keeps the pa­tients busy,” ac­cord­ing to a nurse, So­phie Rif­fault.

An­other nurse, Nathalie Racine, said she wouldn’t let a ro­bot feed pa­tients even if it could. Hu­mans shouldn’t del­e­gate such in­ti­mate mo­ments to ma­chines. “Noth­ing will ever re­place the hu­man touch, the hu­man warmth our pa­tients need,” she said.

The ex­pe­ri­ence at Jouarre pro­vides a win­dow into a fu­ture when we will rely more on ro­bots to help care for loved ones as they age.

Zora Bots, the Bel­gium­based provider of the ro­bot at Jouarre, says it has sold over 1,000 of the ro­bots to health care fa­cil­i­ties around the world, in­clud­ing in the United States, Asia and Mid­dle East. It is part of a grow­ing em­pha­sis on robotics fo­cused on care. A ro­bot dog made by Sony has been mar­keted as a com­pan­ion for older adults.

In Aus­tralia, a hos­pi­tal us­ing a Zora ro­bot stud­ied the ef­fects on pa­tients and staff. The re­searchers found that it im­proved the mood of some pa­tients, and got them more in­volved in ac­tiv­i­ties, but re­quired sig­nif­i­cant tech­ni­cal sup­port.

The ex­pe­ri­ence of the French hos­pi­tal staff has been sim­i­lar. Staff mem­bers have been con­tin­u­ally sur­prised by how at­tached pa­tients have be­come. One nurse, Mick­aël Feret, said some pa­tients get jeal­ous of oth­ers spend­ing time with Zora. Pa­tients have told the ro­bot things about their health they wouldn’t share with doc­tors.

A wo­man who had bruises on her arms wouldn’t tell hos­pi­tal staff what had hap­pened, but shared with Zora that she’d fallen out of bed while sleep­ing.

“It puts some cheer­ful­ness in our lives here,” says Mar­lène Si­mon, 70, who un­der­went a tra­cheotomy and has been in the hos­pi­tal for more than a year. “We love her, and I miss her when I don’t see her. I ac­tu­ally think about her quite of­ten.”

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