The single most moving tech article I’ve read this month is Lauren Smiley’s piece for Wired: What Happens When We Let Tech Care For Our Aging Parents. The title is, I believe, intentionally slightly misleading.
It’s a longer read, but I’d encourage you to give it a look before continuing on with my brief thoughts on it.
The story is primarily about a single client of a company called CareCoach. The idea behind their product is this - you get a tablet style computer and give it to your aging family member. On that tablet is a cartoon dog (I presume there are other avatars, but the article focused on this one). That dog then has conversations with the elderly person, shows them pictures of things from their past to discuss, checks in with them, reminds them to take their medication, and so forth. The article includes an example of the cartoon dog encouraging its human companion when he had difficulty putting on his belt and complimenting his choice of sweater.
The dog also alerted the man’s family that his caretaker was verbally abusive, which resulted in the caretaker being fired.
Here is another one from the article:
Once, [the cartoon dog] noticed that Jim was holding onto furniture for support, as if he were dizzy. The pet persuaded him to sit down, then called [Jim’s daughter].
You might be asking, “Wait a minute - are you telling me that a computer is smart enough to do all of these things? That the computer could tell that this guy was a bit shaky and should sit down?”
Nope. The dog is an avatar of a team of people from Latin America and the Philippines who take turns wearing the persona of the dog to check up on elderly people and engage them. The article’s interviews with the people on the team is thought provoking in itself, as there are stories of the CareCoach team getting attached to their elderly clients who are attached to the dog, which is a semi-autonomous mask for a certain kind of distance social caretakers.
I’m reminded of Mary-Louise Parker’s character in Fried Green Tomatoes who is taken out of her home, likely based on the lie that she’d be able to come back, to a care facility, where she is fed false hope that she’d ever leave that place on her own two feet.
In the Wired article, from one of the women from the Philippines who wear the dog’s digital mask:
She’s befuddled by the absence of family members around her aging clients. “In my culture, we really love to take care of our parents,” she says. “That’s why I’m like, ‘She is already old, why is she alone?’ ”
I’m caught between thinking that this service is another example of the growing loss of physical intimacy between Americans (which I waffle between a feeling of societal shame and personal indifference) and a terrific idea that will only benefit the people who use the service. Should I live long enough, I might count myself among one of those clients.
As a sort of footnote, I’ll link to Guillermo Carbonell’s ten minute zombie video short, “La Peste”, which may be understood as a metaphor for end-of-life care.