It’s been said that “to live is to play”. A bonus of aging is more time for leisurely pursuits. Indeed, a 2016 UK study reported that leisure activities and hobbies were by far the most popular aspirations for older adults.
While for many that might mean reading that long list of books or hitting some golf balls, our technocratic society has a smorgasbord of other entertainment options – including gaming and robots.
And the technologies are not just for fun – researchers are exploring ways they can improve health and quality of life.
Digital gaming for seniors
German telecommunications company Deutsche Telekom is leading the way with the game Sea Hero Quest. “More than a game”, they say, it’s a “quest to save the human brain”.
Players chart a course as a sea captain “through complex waterways, desert islands and icy oceans”, meeting challenges and gaining ratings to entice them to keep playing.
In the process, they role play a sailor whose father is losing his memory, and have to rely on old sea journals to help piece his past together.
This relates to the game’s dual purpose: while providing entertainment, it also gathers real-time data on players’ eye, head and navigation movements for dementia research.
Navigational skills are one of the first to fail with dementia onset, so the aim is to provide a more advanced early detection system for this degenerative neurological disease.
They’re well on their way – just two minutes of playing Sea Hero Quest delivers around 5 hours’ worth of lab-based research. So far, they have data equating to more than 12,000 years of research in the lab.
Other researchers are involved in the Worthplay project. Its focus is researching prototype digital games for older adults, to develop interactive games that can contribute to active aging and enhanced wellbeing.
Paro the robotic seal and friends
Paro is a soft, cuddly robot that looks like a baby harp seal. He has a soothing effect on aged care residents, according to Vicki Boyd from the Gunther Village aged care home in Queensland.
Using artificial intelligence, he responds to touch with movement and sound, and like a pet, provides comfort and companionship. Aged care workers have found his calming influence a great help for dementia patients, who can become distressed and agitated. They’ve also found that he can provide a point of conversation and jokes, hence facilitating social interaction.
Another “emotionally intelligent” robot is called Bobby, a Japanese social robot designed to provide support and friendship.
Rajiv Khosla, professor at La Trobe university, says his evaluations found that Bobby robots – who look more like a mini R2D2 – helped older adults feel more relaxed and productive.
On a more practical front, other researchers are working on robots that can assist with activities of daily living to help older adults retain independence and reduce caregiver burden. This might include housework, eating, bathing, dressing and standing up.
The robots could remind people to eat or take their medication, sense when they fall over and sound an alarm, or even – looking further ahead – ferry them to doctors’ appointments as autonomous cars become a reality.