Robot Paro comforts the elderly in Fukushima
By Kim Kyung-hoon
When I covered Fukushima’s nuclear crisis in March, the first radiation evacuees who I encountered were elderly people who had fled a nursing home which was located near the tsunami-crippled nuclear power plant which was leaking nuclear radiation.
On that night, most of the elderly who could not move well due to old age spent a cold night on a temporary shelter’s hard floor.
Their scraggly bodies, the nasty smell from those who were not able to relieve themselves, and faraway looks of the those who had dementia have been impressed onto my memory, one scene out of many from this tragedy which I will never forget.
In Japan, the most rapidly aging country in the world, the elderly have been more vulnerable to the disaster than any others. According to statistics provided by the Japanese government, over half of the 27,500 dead or missing tsunami victims have been identified as older than 60. In addition, a recent survey conducted by a local newspaper showed an increased death rate among the elderly who had been evacuated from nursing homes near the tsunami-crippled nuclear power plant in Fukushima. The paper reported that caretakers and experts said many of the elderly residents’ deaths resulted from a decline in strength caused by the move far from their nursing homes and it was likely that they could not cope with the change of living environment.
Among all this news, when I heard about a therapeutic robot named “Paro” who had been provided to some nursing homes to give psychological support for the elderly in Fukushima, I thought this could give hope and joy to many people involved with the tragedy.
Paro is an interactive therapeutic robot shaped like a baby harp seal which was invented to help reduce patients’ stress and help them relax. It has a plush coat of antibacterial fur and high-end processing units and censors which can recognize and track a human’s voice and movement.
The robot has been used in hospitals and care facilities in many countries since its invention in Japan and now is being used with elderly survivors of the natural disaster who are suffering from post-disaster syndrome. Japan’s home builder, Diawa House, who recently launched its robot sales business, loaned 50 robots to nursing homes for free in the tsunami-struck northern area and Fukushima areas as part of its Corporate Social Responsibility activity.
The nursing home “Suisyoen” which I visited with my TV colleague is located about 30 km (18 miles) away from the tsunami-crippled nuclear power plant. These residents suffered a strenuous one-and-a-half month evacuation since the nuclear disaster. In the nursing home, the elderly residents named two paro robots “Love” and “Peace” and they treat them more like real animals than robots. Satsuko Yatsuzuka (84), one of the residents at the nursing home, carried Paro everywhere like a little girl who carries and hugs her teddy bear all day.
She said she felt relaxed when she returned from the tough evacuation center life; Paro was a big help in making her feel that way. By chatting with Paro and stroking its soft fur, the residents were helped to relax and their stress was reduced. It is an unbearable moment for the residents when they are waiting for Paro to be charged (the high-end gadget can go only one and half hours with its internal battery).
According to a caretaker, at first some of the elderly considered Paro alive and a resident with dementia tried to feed Paro her food. It was evident to me that the elderly residents are feeling better since they came back from evacuation and the robot has provided psychological support similar to the therapeutic effect of animals.
And the best part of this assignment was that I was able to see the bright smiles of the elderly who are slowly recovering from their mental scars.