Robotic Caregivers Lack Empathy


We’ve been reading about robotic caregivers becoming a reality soon. In fact, it’s already happening in Japan. In a recent New York Times article, Louise Aronson, an associate professor of geriatrics at the University of California, San Francisco, wrote about a 72-year-old woman named Miriam finding comfort in interacting with and confiding in a robot called Paro.

We already have robots assisting us in surgery and delivering medications and other supplies in hospitals. Robots are also increasingly used in rehabilitation after debilitating events like strokes. Aronson, however, pointed out that even within the medical community, the idea that machines could help fulfill more than just physical needs meets largely with skepticism, and occasionally with outrage.

While robots might not ever replace human beings (try not to think of the movie Her), they could help solve the labour crisis by providing more caregivers for the growing number of older people. The Times also quoted Jim Osborn, the executive director of the Quality of Life Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon, who said that the current limitation for the robotic caregiver to become more accessible is not the technology, but finding a viable business model to make it affordable.

But whether we can afford robots or not, many seniors and boomers consider robots only as ”caring machines.” They are not human beings who do care about us unlike most robots who maintain eye contact, call us by our names and respond to verbal cues to simulate care and understanding. No robots in this world could possibly understand how we feel and experience the real pains and joys in life we human beings go through.

So I agree with Sherry Turkle, a professor of the social studies of science and technology at MIT, who recently pointed out in The New York Times letters to the editor, that by outsourcing a caretaker’s job to a robot, we give up what we, as human beings, do best – “understanding each other, taking care of each other.”

Machines and technology are meant to help alleviate human tasks. But if we give up empathy and feelings for one another, particularly for our elderly, then growing old is really going to be a tragic business!

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Shakespeare Still Relevant To Boomers

Photo Credit: The Globe and Mail

Photo Credit: The Globe and Mail

My annual summer visit to Stratford was highlighted with this year’s much-acclaimed production of Shakespeare’s King Lear at the Stratford Festival. The Bard’s 450th birthday celebration has been celebrated everywhere around the world with a lot of fanfare. This is not only because William Shakespeare was the most lauded poet and playwright during his times, but also due to the fact that he remains relevant to all audiences even today.

I always prefer Shakespeare’s tragedies to his comedies, and King Lear is among my favourites. Honestly speaking, having read so many great reviews, I saw the Stratford production with the greatest expectations, but concluded that it was a good show, but not as brilliant as what everybody thought! This is probably the fifth Lear that I’ve seen, and I was underwhelmed by the essential storm scene where Edgar is supposed to be stark naked instead of barely clothed, and where there should be torrential rain in addition to thunderous roars. In this regard, the great Sir Kenneth Branagh’s production of the same play and his rendition of Edgar as Mad Tom in Toronto back in 1990, was much more impactful as I recall him howling in his naked self amidst the horrid storm that became the ‘mad’ metaphor both inside and outside Lear’s frail mind and body.

Colm Feore, one of the best actors of our times, is, in my opinion, a bit too young to play Lear. When compared to William Hutt and Christopher Plummer who have both played leading roles as the mad monarch, Feore lacked the frailty and vulnerability of old age that only senior-citizen actors could convey. When my friend reminded me that Lear in Shakespeare’s times was not supposed to be that old, I responded that, perhaps, the actresses who played his daughters Regan and Goneril, were not young enough to be a contrast to their ailing father.

But, age aside, the play is most powerful when after so many years, Shakespeare’s great tragedy remains relevant to baby boomers of the 21st century. As mentioned in his Director’s notes, Antoni Cimolino, of the Stratford Festival, most aptly said, “Being young and finding work has seldom been harder; debt levels will take years to be reduced, while an enormous generation of baby boomers will require more expensive medical care….The generational tension of King Lear speaks to us today as never before.”

I have witnessed many of my parents’ friends who, like Lear, have divided and given their wealth away to their boomer kids when the parents were still alive and kicking. Consequently, like Lear, they have also been disowned by their beloved sons and daughters once they have gained material possessions from their aging parents. How should true filial and parental love be measured? Would baby boomers still take care of their elderly parents if the latter become penniless, sick and foolish in their old age? Should boomer parents still house their boomerang millennial kids until the latter have repaid their debts and become financially independent or should they give their children an early inheritance?

Even though this current production of Lear did not move me to tears, it’s still bleak, tragic and potent enough to make us question humanity after all these years!

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To Drink Or Not To Drink?


Like many other baby boomers, I’ve always enjoyed wine – red, white and champagne. But I’ve recently refrained from drinking at home and immediately lost weight which goes to show the amount of sugar levels in wines. I’ve read too many articles indicating that alcohol consumption will gradually destroy brain cells and that’s the main reason behind my giving up wine at home. But when I dine in restaurants with friends, a bottle of red is still an irreplaceable highlight of our dinner.

Recently, it has become more and more obvious that alcohol not only has a harmful impact on our brain cells, but also on our overall health. According to a recent Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health, published by the World Health Organization, 3.3 million people worldwide die of alcohol-related issues annually. Alcohol consumption, particularly over-consumption in particular, increases the risk of more than 200 illnesses, including cirrhosis of the liver, breast cancer and depression.

According to The Globe and Mail, although heavy drinkers (10 drinks a week for a woman, 15 for a man) face the biggest risks, emerging evidence shows that even moderate amounts are also tied to disease.

The Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse (CCSA) reports that per-capita alcohol consumption has been growing steadily over the past decade. Nearly one in five Canadians who are 12 and older are heavy drinkers, according to a Statistics Canada survey conducted in 2012 (Statscan defines heavy drinking as five or more drinks per occasion for a man, and four or more for a woman, at least once a month during the past year.).

The Statscan data also show that in addition to a high proportion of young adults in their college or university years drinking heavily, nearly 40 percent of men and almost 25 percent of women are considered heavy drinkers. Men used to drink more than women, but the gender gap has narrowed substantially.

So how much should we drink or should we even drink at all? The Globe reported that in 2011, the CCSA published the first-ever national guidelines that spell out how many drinks is too many for short- and long-term health. According to the guidelines, women shouldn’t drink more than two drinks a day on most days, to a maximum of 10 in a week. For men, it’s no more than three drinks on most days to a maximum of 15 drinks a week. The guidelines also urge people to avoid alcohol at least some days of the week to prevent becoming dependent.

If you think this is too strict, just take a look at Cancer Care Ontario’s and other cancer organizations’ guidelines. They recommend no more than a drink a day for women and no more than two drinks a day for men. According to Dr. Linda Rabeneck of Cancer Care Ontario, alcohol is carcinogenic, and almost any amount is going to increase the long-term risks of developing cancer.

But, of course, moderation is always the key. To an average consumer, moderate consumption could mean three or four drinks throughout an evening. In medical literature, “moderation” is usually defined as one drink per day. That’s why I no longer drink at home, but would gladly consume one to two glasses of wine when I socialize with friends.

According to Dr. James O’Keefe, an American cardiologist who led the Mayo Clinic Proceedings review earlier this year, drinking in moderation has a heart-protecting effect and lowers rates of ischemic stroke, Type 2 diabetes and even death. Some research also suggests that the occasional drink may have positive effects on other aspects of health, such as memory and lowering the risk of dementia.

But research, as reported in The Globe and Mail, also suggests that people under 50 or of Indian or Chinese origin do not experience a positive effect from small amounts of alcohol. So, if I believe all these research studies, I shouldn’t be drinking at all.

But, hey, what’s the purpose of life if we don’t at least indulge in one vice in moderation?












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World Cup Fever For All Generations

England v Italy: Group D - 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil

What hockey is to Canada and basketball is to the U.S., the World Cup is the golden grail for the world. As one of the fans said during a TV interview, “It’s like having the Stanley Cup finals everyday!”

I’m normally not a couch potato, but ever since the World Cup matches began, I’ve cut down on my social engagements and even my exercise regimen to watch the games. Four years ago when I was still working in the office, I had no choice but to skip all the early matches and waited till the semi-finals and the final before I led a group of young female colleagues to watch the live-or-die matches at a sports bar nearby. With this World Cup, I’m already close to my third year of retirement, and have been enjoying the freedom to watch every single game involving countries that I’m rooting for – Brazil, Argentina, Italy, England and Spain. People told me that I shouldn’t be supporting so many countries - I should pick one and stick with it. Well, but how could you root for only one when Canada is not represented and there are so many brilliant teams?

The World Cup is nostalgic for boomers. We grew up with the power of Pele and Maradona. I remember watching World Cup finals with my late father when I was growing up in Hong Kong and then subsequently in Canada where we emigrated. I remember my first experience in a Hong Kong stadium watching a real game when I used to date an award-winning goalkeeper. Those were the good old days when Hong Kong was a British colony where soccer, next to horseracing, was the leading pastime for Hong Kong citizens. But while horseracing could be a social event, it was primarily a gambling sport. Soccer, on the other hand, was a pastime mostly for male fans, many of whom were blue-collar workers. There were not many women who followed the sport.

Fast forwarding two decades, soccer might not be a national sport for Canada, but come World Cup season, it gets personal and exciting! We are, of course, first and foremost, Canadians. But we are also immigrants, and there’s no other event in the world, not even the Olympics, that can prove that we are a multicultural nation. Italians, Argentines, Croatians, Brits, Aussies, South Koreans, Brazilians, Americans, Dutch, Mexicans, Spaniards and many others begin rooting for their home countries and ethnic origins during this one month of World Cup fever. The World Cup unites all generations because you have grandfathers and grandmothers watching the games with their grandkids. I sometimes see four generations of fans crowding around their TV sets. Many friends have converted their garages at home into a mini-theatre and bar with the giant TV screen in the forefront. So, to use a World Cup cliche, it’s not just one world, it’s one focus and one synergy among multi-generations and multi-cultures in Canada.

It’s also gratifying to see that young soccer superstars such as Neymar, Ronaldo and Messi commanding as great an attention as their idols and heroes before them. Whichever club and country these young lions are professionally affiliated with, when it comes to the World Cup, these renowned players only want to score patrioticially for their respective home countries.

And if you think this is just a game, then you’re dead wrong! From renowned English physicist Stephen Hawking who tried to predict when England would do well or badly in what climate; to how penalty kicks represent the Nash equilibrium in economics (Economist John Forbes Nash Jr. analysed how people should behave in strategic situations in which it is not optimal to repeatedly make the same move), it’s all about strategy, flexibility and perseverance.

So, behind the ugly politics and social unrest in Brazil and the fermentng corruption scandals of FIFA, the World Cup has kicked off and it’s time to cheer for our favourite team(s)!


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Walk The Walk

walking best exercise

In my blog post on  May 14, I mentioned that we need to keep moving and exercising in order to look younger. Now, we also need to walk briskly regularly to stay healthy. The New York Times reported that according to the latest results published by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) on May 27, 2014, regular exercises, including walking, significantly reduces the chance that a frail older person will become physically disabled.

In the past, countless medical studies have found a strong correlation between physical activity in advanced age and a longer, healthier life. But these studies only proved that healthy older people exercise. This most recent study – Lifestyle Interventions and Independence for Elders, or LIFE trial –  has, instead, proven that exercise actually improves older people’s health. Instead of using people in relatively good health who can easily exercise as survey samples, this trial used volunteers who were sedentary and infirm, and even borderline frail.

They recruited 1,635 sedentary men and women aged 70 to 89 who scored below a nine on a 12-point scale of physical functioning often used to assess older people. Almost half scored an eight or lower, but all were able to walk on their own for 400 metres or a quarter-mile, the researchers’ cutoff point for being physically disabled.

Then the men and women were randomly assigned to either an exercise or an education group. Those in the exercise group received information about aging, but also started a program of walking and light, lower-body weight training with ankle weights, going to the research centre twice a week for supervised group walks on a track, with the walks growing progressively longer. There was also homework – they were asked to complete three or four more exercise sessions at home, aiming for a total of 150 minutes of walking and about three 10-minute sessions of weight-training exercises each week.

Those in the education group were only asked to visit the research centre once a month to learn about nutrition, health care and other topics related to aging.

Every six months, researchers checked the physical functioning of the volunteers, with particular attention to whether they could still walk 400 metres by themselves. This experiment continued for an average of 2.6 years – far longer than most exercise studies.

When the two groups were compared against each other, more volunteers in the exercise group ended up hospitalized during the study than did the participants in the education group, possibly because their vital signs were checked far more often. The exercise itself did not lead to hospital stays but may have ‘unmasked’ underlying medical conditions.

About 35 percent of those in the education group had a period of disability during the study. But so did 30 percent of those in the exercise group. But according to researchers, it’s an important study overall because it focuses on the prevention of physical disability.

Researchers also stressed the importance of medical supervision for the exercises. Older people are advised to consult their doctors and try to find an exercise group because the social aspect of exercising is as important as the physical part of it. So, similar to us baby boomers who rely on personal trainers to help us exercise in a correct and beneficial way, seniors should also find a way to regularly exercise and improve their health without physically hurting themselves.

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