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The Takeaway: 'Partner Robots' Help With Mobility; 'Green Houses' Make Nursing Homes More Homey

Partner Robots: What's made by Toyota, has no wheels but still helps you get from here to there? That would be the 'independent walk assist,' part of the auto manufacturer's new line of high-tech health care products aimed at helping disabled or older adults get around. The walk assist is a computerized metallic brace that goes on the leg and can take the place of a walker. Other 'experimental robots' designed by Toyota can lift disabled patients from hospital beds and help patients relearn balance.

"The era of an aging society is definitely coming," said Eiichi Saitoh, a professor of rehabilitation medicine. "We need partner robots to enrich our lives."

But Toyota General Manager Akifumi Tamaoki said more testing of these mobility devices is needed; the products that ultimately hit the American market will be smaller and lighter than prototype versions. The company plans to keep devices simple, so they can be used in day-to-day activities. 

The Incredible Shrinking Nursing Home: "No matter what you do, you can't get that homelike feeling in (a nursing home) because it's too big," laments nursing home operator Toni Davis. So Davis is teaming with  two dozen other nursing home operators from around the country to try something new. Behind the main campus of Davis' Green Hill Retirement Community, she has opened four small houses, called Green Houses, which look nothing like traditional nursing homes. Just 10 residents live in each house, enjoying private bedrooms and baths surrounding a large communal living room, dining area and kitchen.

The house has a front porch and back deck with tables and chairs. There are no corridors, no nursing stations, no medicine carts (each room has a locked cabinet containing the resident's medications) and no trays of food delivered to the rooms.

There are now 117 Green Houses across the United States, and it's not just the structure of these houses that's different. In traditional nursing homes, employees perform specialized jobs-laundry, cooking, bathing-for a large swath of residents. Each Green House, however, is staffed by two certified nursing assistants and a shared registered nurse who meet all the care requirements for the house's residents.

"If you have one person doing everything, they can spend more time with the residents and get to know somebody as a real person," said Robert Jenkens, a director at NCB Capital Impact, a nonprofit community development finance institution. "You're also less locked into a rigid 'wake, meal, bath' schedule, and you can reorganize someone's day based on her preferences."

We can probably expect to see more Green House-like efforts to decentralize elder care as boomers get older. According to a September poll from NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health, 82 percent of pre-retirees (adults over age 50 who have not retired but plan to) and 78 percent of retirees are concerned about being in an institutional environment.

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