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Seniors living alone use robots to stay connected

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    Setsuko Saeki chats with her PaPeRo i robot in Saijo, Ehime Prefecture.

TOKYO >> The city of Saijo in Ehime Prefecture faces the Seto Inland Sea to the north and Mt. Ishizuchi, the tallest mountain in western Japan, to the south. Here, 87-year-old Setsuko Saeki has lived with a robot for a year in her spacious house at the foot of a mountain.

When she enters her living room each morning, she’s greeted by her robot, a model named PaPeRo i, situated on a desk. “Good morning, Setsuko-san. Did you sleep well?”

“When it spoke to me the first time, I couldn’t help but feel excited,” Saeki said. “No one had called me by name and said good morning for a long time.”

Saeki’s three children are on their own, and her husband passed away six years ago. Since then, she has lived alone.

Nursing care helpers visit her daily, and she regularly attends gatherings to enjoy her hobby of haiku poetry. Even so, she often felt lonely.

Then last July, the city began an experimental program to loan Pa PeRo i robots free of charge to 10 elderly residents. At the request of family members who live away from their relatives, the robots were placed with the seniors for three months.

Saeki’s eldest son, who lives in Chiba Prefecture, applied for his mother to receive one.

Though PaPeRo is just shy of a foot tall, it has made a marked difference in the Saeki family’s life.

When the elder Saeki asks, “What time is it?”, it’s cheeks lights up as it replies. Cameras are installed in its eyes, and the robot follows Saeki using sensors, directing its face toward her. Before she goes to bed, the robot asks, “Did you lock up the house?” Sometimes, it delivers impromptu puns and tells her trivia.

Three times a day, the robot asks her, “Setsuko-san, may I take photos of you?” The shots are transmitted to her son, as well as to a care manager, giving everyone peace of mind. Saeki’s son sends photos she can see on a device connected to her robot. Saeki can also exchange voice messages with her son and his family via the robot.

“Initially, I didn’t expect anything after hearing about a robot. But now, I don’t want to be parted from my PaPeRo,” she said.

Mitsuaki Matsuo, chief of the city’s comprehensive support section, said the response to the robots was better than expected.

Things didn’t start out that way. Initially, some elderly residents voiced negative feelings about the program. “If I have to receive care from a robot, it’s over,” one groused.

But since then, 90% of program participants feel positive about having a robot. In addition, about 90% of families praised the program, saying it relieved their anxiety.

Following the trial, the city implemented a rental system. Fees include a 22,530 yen (about $210) installment and 6,000 yen a month ($56) for telecommunication and other features.

Six seniors now live with robots.

Matsuo said the city is utilizing the technology with an eye toward the future.

“Users’ family members and local human resources will be increasingly aged in the years to come. We want to build a system for monitoring residents, borrowing the strengths of robots.”

In a 2015 survey by the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry, 40% of respondents in their 20s or younger said they “want to use” or “could consider using” communication robots. Interest increased with age, with 51% of people in their 50s, and 55% for people in their 60s or older, saying they would use a robot.

While some elderly people hesitate to buy robots, fearing they may be difficult to use, companies such as Benefit Japan Co., an Osaka-based firm selling Sharp Corp.’s small RoBoHoN model robots, hold free events where visitors can get hands-on with the technology.

Like the PaPeRo i robot, the RoBoHoN functions as a smartphone through which users can access a telephone, email and camera.

“Users can take photos at travel destinations and chat about the memories later. Many people are surprised at how many functions the robots have, despite their very small size,” said a Benefit Japan official.

Takashimaya Co. opened its first Robotics Studio in 2017, in its Shinjuku store in Tokyo, where customers can try their hands at controlling robots. It opened another studio in 2018 in Osaka. Sales have been brisk, and the company plans to open more studios.

Communications robots are not inexpensive; they usually run 100,000 yen to 300,000 yen ($938 to $2,815). But the appeal of the robots is that they understand words, recognize users’ faces, and chat and gesture, endearing them to users.

In a 2017 survey conducted by the Cabinet Office, more than 10% of respondents age 55 or older who live alone said they had conversations with family or friends “once or twice a month” or “rarely.”

“Robots can fulfill people’s desire to chat with somebody, and make users feel close to them and warm with their eye contact, motions and words, said Prof. Hiroshi Ishiguro of Osaka University. “They could become as popular as smartphones, if prices go down,” he said.

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