Robotics in elderly care: When the machine needs a helping hand

Which technologies are useful for nursing home residents? And how can they be designed to respect their needs and protect their dignity?

Translated from the original German version

How to use robots sensibly in nursing care

The search term "care robot" on Google predominantly returns cute, human-like, shiny white models - a childlike scheme with an Apple look. The humanoid robot Pepper, for example, has already been tested in Germany. Pepper's manufacturer "Humanising Robotics & AI" advertises the integrated "Social Happiness Package" for nursing homes. Pepper talks, can play guessing games, tell jokes and carry out mobility programmes with people. The "Happiness Hero" wants to bring joy and loves being around people. If you believe the promise, Pepper is a born entertainer in nursing homes, because he finally gives the people in need of care the attention they deserve and gives the caregiver time to get on with the job.

Technically, a lot is already possible in the field of robotics - robots learn quickly and get better with each model.

Two pitfalls stand out on closer inspection: First, the caregiver and the patient are not included in the development of care robots. The technical innovations do not ask about the actual need. Secondly, the simulation of social and emotional exchange raises ethical questions.

Sanne: An integrated robot development for nursing

This has also been recognised by the interdisciplinary research group of the research project "ReThiCare - Rethinking Care Robots". The project is funded by the Volkswagen Foundation and investigates the following questions: "When are which technologies really useful for elderly people and caregivers? And how can they be designed in a way that both respects people's needs and preserves their dignity?" To find answers to these questions and determine the actual needs, the research group spent a lot of time in nursing homes, observing, taking notes and gaining surprising insights: It had to be about creating interaction that was reciprocal, relieved boredom and activated.

This gave rise to the idea of a mobile robot that needs help to do its job. Adapted to the needs and preferences of senior citizens, the researchers developed a suction-capable robot in the shape of an orange cat with big googly eyes. Sanne, as the vaccuming robot cat is called, sometimes gets stuck in a corner or under the table in the facility and then has to be freed by the residents so that it can continue to vacuum. This is entertaining, activates petting and hand disinfection at the same time, and takes work off the caregiver's hands. Gentle tests in retirement homes with dementia patients have had consistently positive results. Not one patient felt irritated or threatened by Sanne.

IntiMe and IntiMu: a different type of "care robots"

The research group was also able to meet the residents' wish for plants in the facility, which could not otherwise be granted due to the high workload of the staff. They developed a plant watering robot that waters independently so that the nursing staff do not have to spend any time on it. Watching it brings fun and variety to the home's residents, and they sometimes have to clear the way for it, as it doesn't always work quite smoothly.

As it turned out, another important and also sensitive issue for seniors is the experience of intimacy and sexuality. The research group developed two tools, IntiMe and IntiMus. A blanket equipped with sensors that vibrates when placed on the body and a glove with several openings through which seniors can touch each other and produce vibrations and sounds. The devices are discreet and allow for careful approach and exploration of seniors' needs.

Care robots, design through a different thinking approach, could be the real "Happiness Heroes".


  1. Bischof et all, Integrated robot development for care: Conceptual and practical challenges using ReThiCare as an example.
  2. Marchetti et al, Pet-Robot or Appliance? Care Home Residents with Dementia Respond to a Zoomorphic Floor Washing Robot
  3. In German only:
  4. Humanizing Technologies, "Emotional appeal to customers through the humanoid robot Pepper"