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China's IT Care for the Elderly

People in China have traditionally relied on their offspring to take care of them in their golden years. But with the country's birthrate holding steady, and the number of seniors growing, more elderly people are having to fend for themselves. Now efforts are underway to make better use of technology to care for the elderly.

Li Aiying lives in Shanghai, where she has a robot developed to provide companionship to seniors living alone.

When she talks, the robot automatically connects to the internet and searches for an appropriate answer. It is simple, but welcome conversation. The robot can also get the latest weather forecast, or information about nearby shops or restaurants. It can even sing and dance. And all this for a cost of only $1,000.

Li has been living alone for three years. She lost her husband in an accident and her only son lives in the United States. "Thanks to the robot, I no longer feel lonely or isolated," she says. "I feel as if I'm having a chat with my son or late husband. Now the robot is my son and my partner."

The robot's manufacturer has been flooded with orders. It already has plans to make 200,000 of the bots. It works with a bracelet that allows the elderly to keep a close eye on their health. The bracelet measures a person's blood pressure and heart rate every day and uploads the data to the robot. This is then sent to the smartphones of relatives.

If something abnormal is detected, a family member can check out the problem remotely. Co-founder of the company, Hong Gang, says "as more families live apart from each other, many people are worried about their aging parents. We want to make a robot that offers the convenience of interactive communication functions as well as a human touch."

Nearly 30 percent of residents in Shanghai's Lujiazui district are elderly. Local officials are trying to improve the healthcare they offer by making smarter use of information technology. When seniors visit a community center for a checkup, they can speak via videophone to a doctor at an affiliated hospital. The doctors can access the senior's medical records and offer consultations.

The government is also working with NGOs and manufacturers to develop new appliances designed to help seniors stay healthy while having fun. Officials plan to make them and the services available in each household to assist the aging population.

Shi Xi of the Pudong New Area Government explains "in China, 97 percent of the elderly population lives at home and not in nursing care facilities. So making the most of science and technology is essential in taking care of them. We need to further enhance the functions of technical devices in this greying society."

Robots will never completely replace humans in taking care of the elderly. But they are already providing welcome assistance, and helping ease the concerns of loved ones living far away.

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