CARPI, Italy — The older woman asked to be told a story.
“An excellent choice,” replied the little robot, reclining like a nonchalant professor on the classroom desk, motioning for him to listen carefully.
The woman leaned toward the robot, her forehead almost touching the smooth plastic head.
Daniela Lucchi, with her Moldovan caretaker, Danalachi Parascovia, in Carpi, Italy, on March 6, 2023. (Alessandro Grassani/The New York Times)
"Once upon a time", the robot began a short story, and when it finished, it asked what job the protagonist had.
“Pastor,” replied Bona Poli, 85, meekly.
The robot did not hear so well.
Poli got up from her chair and raised her voice.
“Pastor!” she yelled.
“Fantastic,” said the robot, gesturing awkwardly.
like a computer."
The scene may have the dystopian undercurrent of “what could go wrong?”
of science fiction at a time when both the promises and the dangers of artificial intelligence are assuming greater significance.
But for the exhausted caregivers who attended a recent gathering in Carpi, a beautiful town in Italy's most innovative region in elderly care, it pointed to a not-too-distant future in which humanoids could help shrinking
. to share the burden of keeping
the older population of the Western world
stimulated, active and healthy .
Daniela Cottafavi, 65, asks if the robot would be able to call the doctor on the phone during a focus group in Carpi, Italy, on March 6, 2023. (Alessandro Grassani/The New York Times)
"Squat down and stretch," recommended Nao, the French-made robot, standing up and leading the posture exercises.
"Let's move our arms and raise them up."
Most of the women in the room watched, some amused, some wary, but all desperate to know how new technology could help them care for their elderly relatives.
Together, they listened to the robot's calm, automated voice and offered their take on the real world in a focus group organized by a nonprofit advocacy group representing so-called family caregivers.
The goal was
to help the
robot's programmers design a more attractive and useful machine that could one day lighten the load for increasingly overwhelmed Italian families.
Italy, which has one of the lowest birth rates in Europe, is bracing for a population explosion of older people.
Of the almost 60 million Italians,
more than seven million
are over 75 years of age.
And 3.8 million consider themselves not self-sufficient.
Illnesses such as dementia and chronic illnesses weigh on the healthcare system and families.
"The revolution," said Olimpia Pino, a professor of psychology at the University of Parma, who designed the robot project, would be that a "social robot could help in care."
Advances in artificial intelligence would only make robots more responsive, he said, making older people
self-sufficient for longer
and providing more relief for caregivers.
“We all have to look for all possible solutions, in this case technological,” Loredana Ligabue, president of Not Only Elderly, an advocacy group for caregivers, explained to the participants.
"We have seen the great fear of being left alone."
The robots already interact with the elderly in Japan and have been used in nursing homes in the United States.
But in Italy, the prototype is the latest attempt to recreate an echo of the traditional family structure that kept older Italians at home.
The Italy of the popular imagination, where multigenerational families gather around the table on Sundays and live happily under one roof, is being buffeted by major demographic
Low birth rates and the flight of many young adults in search of economic opportunities abroad have reduced the number of potential caregivers.
Those who bear the burden of care are often women, which cuts them off from the workforce, puts a drag
on the economy
and, experts say, further reduces birth rates.
However, home care remains a central element of the notion of aging in a country where nursing homes exist, but Italians prefer to find ways to keep their elderly relatives with them.
For decades, Italy avoided serious reform of its long-term care sector by filling the vacuum with cheap and often
live-in workers , many from post-Soviet Eastern Europe, and mostly from Ukraine.
“That is the pillar of long-term care in this country,” said Giovanni Lamura, director of Italy's main center for socioeconomic research on aging.
"Without that, the whole system would collapse."
In January, unions representing the legal Badanti, as the workers are called here, won a pay increase that added up to about 145 euros, or more than $150, a month for home care.
Italians say their salaries and pensions have not kept up, forcing many to
take care of themselves
As far as family carers are concerned, Italy has for decades offered public benefits to a single person in the family who cares for a seriously ill person.
Later this year, paid leave and other support will be able to be shared within a family, which in practice means more men will be able to help.
In Emilia-Romagna, the region that includes Carpi, there are also plans to generate a workforce of caregivers with experience caring for their own relatives who, ultimately, when their own loved ones pass away, can be hired to care for others. .
“There is a
,” Ligabue said.
Last week, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni welcomed the passage of a new law aimed at streamlining access to services for older people and achieving greater government commitment to the growing field of long-term care.
However, the law does not include specific support measures for family caregivers.
Alessandra Locatelli, Italy's Minister for Disability, explained that the government did not want to give priority to Italians caring for older relatives over those caring for younger disabled people.
He said he expected a new measure at the end of the year to offer tax breaks and other benefits to "resident relative caregivers" for "all types of people who are not self-sufficient."
But the Carpi meeting made it clear that many Italians don't necessarily live with the parents and grandparents they care for.
Some of those women are already looking beyond the government for help: at the machines.
As Nao, the French robot that adopts the correct posture, made sudden movements on the table, Leonardo Saponaro, the psychology student who led the discussion group and whose grandfather suffered from dementia outside Rome, explained that the robot was not " a substitute for socializing with other people.”
"However, it can be a companion," he concluded.
c.2023 The New York Times Company
c.2023 The New York Times Company
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