Get ready to spend your final years in a VR care pod dancing with dinosaurs and your long dead wife. Or husband. Or both.
First published in January.
Care for the elderly might look very different in fifty years from now.
I was listening to a programme on the radio this morning regarding the problems faced by carers. The lady in question was herself afflicted with MS, whilst being a carer for her husband, who had dementia.
This set me to thinking. The aging population, increased life duration, there’s now around seven million carers in the UK, a figure set to rise by another three million or so in the next decade. Carers range in age from under ten years old to pensioners. Cuts in services have made it increasingly difficult for people to get the support they need, for carers, and for those requiring care, or frequently, for those who both need it and give it. Caring for one another is the most fundamental human activity. So I’m wondering, is there a technological solution for this problem. Or rather, are there technologies that can assist carers in their roles, and perhaps relive them of some of the stresses and hardships they experience? Let’s have a look. The UK is far from the only country facing this situation. China, Germany, Italy, and Japan in particular are all facing a problem at least as challenging. And one of the solutions being developed is robotics. These devices, or machines, range in complexity and function. Some are mobility aids, assisted walking frames that have a level of functionality that makes it easier for the person to walk, and less likely for them to fall. It’s quite easy to imagine a walking frame that would be able to take much of the strain, as well as having such smart features as a homing device, a reminder voice, and the ability to call for assistance. With Ai cars already well in the pipeline, it’s a short step back from there to create Ai wheelchairs, a much simpler proposition than road vehicles. There’s also home assist robots, able to provide company, conversation, and perform basic household duties. The eldercare robotics sector is not glamourous, and definitely not sexy, but it’s one of the most important and potentially beneficial uses of new technologies. In theory, it’s quite possible that in twenty years from now, elderly people will be able to wear an exoskeleton type device that enables them to move around comfortably and safely. Physical aids will always be easier to develop than the mental ones, and dementia is a major cause of old people’s inability to look after themselves. Here we may see a combination of new technologies, including Virtual Reality, providing a fully immersive solution. Imagine a care home, where the people are happily living in a VR world sculpted from their own life experiences. Imagine, when you’re 100, living in a state whereby you, and your friends, are connected in a Virtual World, freely moving, running, in a pseudo physical form that makes you ageless. The experience can even have a physical sensation, the gloves you wear respond when you reach out and touch, the footpads provide the physical sensation of walking, you can hear, and see, and feel. Perhaps this is the future we will create for ourselves. The elderly of today are not ‘digital natives’, they haven’t grown up with technology, but the generations after, those born into the world of the internet and connectivity, why would they resist this kind of agecare? By the time they are elderly and infirm, technology will have leapt forward, taking our understanding of the acceptable with it.
Perhaps a care home in fifty years from now will consist of live-in VR pods, the elderly people inside having their basic physical needs tended to robotically, but there they are, flying, swimming, exploring the jungle, piloting spacecraft, finding new worlds, visiting ancient times, walking with dinosaurs and holding hands with their wives and husbands.
Rather than staring at the walls and being infantilised, they’ll be dancing with the stars. Rather than struggling to maintain a function in the physical world they, we, will submit to the inevitable and embrace the virtual, spending the last years of our lives in a simulacrum paradise of our own choosing. Suddenly old age seems rather exciting. If just a little dystopian.