Harry Asada smiles warmly when he recalls his mom, Yoshiko Asada, who lived in Osaka, Japan. She spent much of her time volunteering and “was a very independent old lady,” he says. But after breaking a hip in a fall at age 89, she developed complications and then dementia. “She became a different person after that,” Asada says, remembering the chain of events that motivated him to move his mother into a nursing home. Over the next 15 years, her functions slowly declined, and she became a wheelchair user. She passed away in early 2022 at age 104. “Amazing,” Asada chuckles.
This loss of autonomy is a common trajectory for people as they age. Asada says that most older adults don’t want to go to a nursing home. “They want to live more independently,” he explains. “And it’s not a good thing for them to be disconnected from their familiar community.” Not to mention the price tag, says Asada, combined with a growing elderly population worldwide and a shrinking workforce to support them.
Asada, the Ford Professor of Engineering in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, says robotics may be able to help elderly people retain their independence and live at home for longer, a concept often referred to as aging in place. He admits that it’s difficult for someone to regain the mobility that they’ve lost. Instead, Asada, who is also director of the Brit and Alex d’Arbeloff Laboratory for Information Systems and Technology, is focusing his efforts on slowing physical decline, preventing falls, and improving overall balance.
A human must be in the loop
Take the task of standing up from a sitting or reclining position. An elderly person might have grab bars installed on the walls of their home “but the ideal bar locations are not necessarily the walls,” says Asada. It would be more helpful to have bars that can float in mid-air, in front of or beside the person. One of Asada’s graduate students and a Flowers Family Graduate Fellow, Roberto Bolli ’20, outfitted a collaborative robot arm with a handlebar and attached it to a mobile base, called Handle Anywhere. It can be teleoperated by a health professional or run autonomously.
“A human must be in the loop,” cautions Asada. “If the robot were to approach the person and yank their arms to stand up on their feet, that would be rather terrifying. Instead, the robot needs to communicate with the user to ascertain their willingness to stand up, and develop a cooperative, trusting relationship.” This is accomplished by having the elderly person lean forward before the robot starts to lift their body. Because today’s robotics are not yet at that level, the current setup requires human supervision. Ideally, the machine would behave like a well-trained and compassionate caregiver who offers both physical and sympathetic support.
Exercise safety net
Another of Asada’s efforts focuses on tai chi. His collaborator Peter Wayne, associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and associate epidemiologist at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital, says the Chinese martial art can enhance mobility, balance, and mental health. Asada and Wayne have found that medical professionals often discourage the elderly and frail from practicing tai chi because of the risk of falling.
In response, Asada and Wayne are developing a tai chi robotic assistant. A metal frame supports a spray of cables and winches that attaches to a special pair of pants built by a student in his lab, Emily Kamienski SM ’21, and a visiting scholar, Hirofumi Itagaki. “When the person doesn’t need assistance, the robot is almost invisible,” explains Asada. But when sensors in the pants detect that the individual is losing their balance, the winches engage, the cables tighten, and the pants grip the person mid-fall, supporting up to a quarter of their body weight. “With this kind of safety net,” Asada says, “the people who really benefit from this exercise can do it safely.” In addition, it’s a way of continuously monitoring someone’s balance and risk of falling.
Neither robot is on the market yet, says Asada, who notes that this is delicate and difficult work. But the payoff of success would be enormous, providing people with robotic assistance to remain healthy, independent, and meaningfully engaged with their communities and loved ones. Asada likes to think his mom would be proud.