The robot Pepper supports patients at Japanese Nursing Homes.

Handling elder boom with robots

Japan´s elderly people constitute a growing proportion of the population. Norway will face this same situation within 20 years. As Japan is solving the challenge by increasing the use of robots, Norway is tending to focus on conversation and personal contact, says Professor Bettina S. Husebø at SEFAS.

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Japan has about the same land area as Norway, but it has 130 million inhabitants. Around 5 million of these are suffering from dementia, which is nearly as many people as the total Norwegian population.

“Japan is 20 years ahead when it comes to coping with the expected elder boom in Norway and in Europe,” says Professor Bettina S. Husebø at Centre for Elderly and Nursing Home Medicince (SEFAS), University of Bergen.

Husebø has recently been on a tour to Japan to meet with her Japanese colleagues and to visit some Japanese nursing homes. SEFAS collaborate with, amongst others,  Tohoku University in Sendai and Tokyo Metropolitan Institute of Gerontology.

“There are huge differences in how elderly people are handled between Norway and Japan. We have, however, a common interest in finding optimal solutions for the old,” Husebø says.

Japan is 20 years ahead when it comes to coping with the expected elder boom in Norway and in Europe.

Bettina S. Husebø


Bettina Husebø kisses the robot Pepper in Tokyo
Kim E. Andreassen

Bettina Husebø and the robot Pepper in Tokyo.

Investigating robotic solutions

The Japanese nursing homes are investigating robotic solutions, the so-called Nursing-Care Robots (NCR). These provide surveillance and high tech-solutions to manage the elder boom.

One technical solution that is very popular is the robot Pepper. He is used as a training instructor at public training meetings and even leads quiz sessions. Pepper can both read and express emotions. The patients can also play with robot seals and dogs.

President and CEO Kimiya Ishikawa at Silverwing Social Welfare Coorporation in Tokyo, says that the patients do not seem to mind the robots at all. In fact, they are of great help and pleasure for the patients, especially in the beginning of their stay. They help the patients to get familiar with their new environment and the personnel.

“The robots make their stay more pleasant,” Ishikawa says.

The robots make their stay more pleasant.

Kimiya Ishikawa

Old lady cuddles with a robot-seal.
Kim E. Andreassen

You can cuddle with robot-seals at Japanese nursing homes.

Technology is the key

According to Ishikawa, the care staff´s working environment is one of the big challenges relating to the elder boom. Japanese nursing homes are relying on robot technology for support.

“The challenges include lifting and washing the patients, as well as cleaning the rooms. Surveillance of the patients is also a constant challenge,” Ishikawa explains.

“Many of these technical devices are small and easy to use. They can even be used for training by the patients in their own homes,” says Ishikawa.

Kimiya Ishikawa and  Bettina S. Husebø.
Kim E. Andreassen

Kimiya Ishikawa and Bettina S. Husebø have different views on geriatic care at nursing homes.

Conversation in focus

According to Husebø, all this technology is not yet relevant for Norwegian nursing homes.

“It is not possible to simply introduce technology in geriatric care. It has to be specially developed, and well tested, even for patients with dementia. Research has shown that people with dementia have a better time when they have contact with humans, children and real animals,” Husebø points out.

She says that communication, including preliminary discussions, and is the main focus at Norwegian nursing homes, as well as developing routines to avoid overmedication.

“Our Japanese colleagues are, in fact, very interested in learning more about our approach to geriatric care. They want to know more about our ways of evaluating pain, issues relating to pain care, and also the voluntary aspects relating to receiving care at home,” Husebø says.

“For the Japanes, where the norm is that men are often working for at least 12 hours each day, giving less priority to wives and children, and where, at the same time, the country is experiencing an elderly boom, I guess Norwegian welfare system represents an interesting contrast,” Husebø explains.

Our Japanese colleagues are, in fact, very interested in learning more about our approach to geriatric care.

Bettina S. Husebø

Bed transformed to wheelchair

However, Husebø says that the Japanese have some types of technical devices that Norway would benefit from importing.

“For instance, the Japanese have a very handy bed that can be transformed to a wheelchair with just a few pushes on a button. This device is much safer and more convenient than the lifts we use in Norwegian nursing homes”, Husebø says.

“They also have different equipment to protect the backs of health workers when lifting patients,” she adds.

Nursing home bed can be transfored into a wheelchair.
Kim E. Andreassen

This nursing home bed can turn into a wheelchair.

Problematic surveillance

The implementation of modern surveillance technology, involves consideration of some ethical questions . Husebø questions the practice of prolonging life at all costs in nursing homes.

“Japan has developed diagnostic methods and treatment, that can sustain life in nursing home patients for a very long time. The questions that emerges at the end, is when the patients should be allowed to die a natural death,” Bettina Husebø points out.

Tokyo by night
Kim E. Andreassen

The young people of Japan need different solutions to cope with the increasing ageing population.