Elliq, a two-foot-high robot that looks like an elliptical lampshade on a small pedestal, greets Monica Perez first thing in the morning, asks her how she’s feeling, and reminds her to take her medicines and any upcoming appointments.
“I have good quality friends, but there are times when they are busy and most of them have families,” says Perez, 64, of Beacon, New York. [that] She uses my name all the time. I know he’s a robot, but she’s a friend.”
Robots for the elderly evoke a mixture of emotions, often negative. The disappointment that we have to turn to robots for elderly care and companionship. Fear of the ability of these technical assistants to spy on their users. Concern that robots will replace human jobs.
All of these concerns are valid, says Maja Matarić, a professor of computer science at the University of Southern California and co-director of its Robotics Research Laboratory. But “the need for elderly care is enormous. People always like to say that people should help people. I totally agree, but this is not the world we live in. When the pandemic came, it became very clear that we need to find technological solutions.”
Not in a person, but better than TV
Most people’s idea of the assistant robot comes from Rosie, the goofy robot maid, complete with a ruffled apron, on the TV cartoon show “The Jetsons.” They first appeared in 1962, but 60 years later, robots can come close to performing Rosy’s multifaceted tasks, such as cleaning the house or serving food while providing intelligent responses. “None of them are going to fold the sheets, do the laundry, or do the dishes,” Matarić says. “They can press a button if someone falls but they can’t help them. And that won’t come soon.”
Most robots are now developed to help the elderly rely on artificial intelligence, which users of Amazon Alexa or Roomba vacuum cleaners already know. Robotics research falls into distinct areas:
- Mobility robots, such as robotic wheelchairs
- Robots with one or more arms to handle objects, which can assist, among other things, with feeding
- Socially assistive robots that can help with certain cognitive or physical tasks
- Bots like ElliQ act as companions but can sometimes help out with other tasks.
Companion robots, in particular, have attracted the public’s attention. For years, mental health experts have warned of an epidemic of loneliness, especially among the elderly. A 2017 AARP study found that loneliness and social isolation, which can be risk factors for chronic health conditions, such as arthritis, high blood pressure and heart disease, cost Medicare an additional $6.7 billion annually.
Conor McGinn, assistant professor of robotics at Trinity College Dublin, decided to conduct research on what technology could do to help tackle social isolation among the elderly after his grandmother was admitted to a nursing home in Ireland. The result was Stevie, a robot with a square head, smiling face, arms and a rolling base that McGinn and his colleagues built with input from seniors and their caregivers.
In 2019, Stevie lived in the Knollwood Military Retirement Community in northwest Washington, D.C. for four months. Stevie delivered the goods and brought in the staff, but that wasn’t why most of the 300-strong population liked interacting with the robot, McGinn says. “They said it made them laugh,” he recalls. “She told jokes, she could sing, she gave them something they might talk about with their grandchildren.”
McGinn says he was amazed at how long she captured the attention of people with dementia, often with several stories, each lasting about five minutes. All testing on Stevie has been halted during the pandemic, but McGinn said what he’s learned is that “a robot may not be a person but it’s a lot better than a TV.”
Dogs and cats models
In 2018, the New York State Office on Aging worked with the New York City Department of Aging and the New York Aging Association to distribute 60 robot cats and dogs to adults age 60 or older. In surveys taken the following year, 70% of respondents said they “had a significant change in social isolation,” says Becky Brave, the association’s executive director.
During the pandemic, about 4,000 of these robotic pets have been dispatched, with plans to deploy another 17,000. The battery-powered cats, which retail for $129.99 from Joy for All, meow and growl even for the hard of hearing. Costing $139.99, dogs bark and roll, come in several colors, and sleep, like real animals, if you stop playing with them.
Based on the number of sincere thanks her agency has received and videos people have shared, Brave says recipients of the robotic pet clearly relate to her. These pets have limited use of robotics, but Jenny, a retrieved Labrador puppy designed for people with dementia, is more sophisticated. The five-pound dog is covered in sensors, runs on rechargeable batteries, barks, moves in various ways and can be carried or sitting on a lap.
Anything else can be a tripping hazard, says Tom Stevens, co-founder and CEO of TomBot, the manufacturer of Jennie in Santa Clarita, California, and the Jennie was recently registered with the Food and Drug Administration as a medical device.
Stevens’ mother, who had Alzheimer’s disease and was forced to abandon her dog, inspired the idea. It also taught him a lot about how people with dementia treat a robot dog. For example, when his mother tried to feed him chocolate pudding, Stevens realized that Jenny must be cleanable.
Users are not fooled that Jennie is a real puppy, and those who tested her didn’t like it anyway. “They’ve already given up on taking care of a pet or don’t want to live through another passage,” Stevens says. Jenny is scheduled to hit the market in the beginning of 2024. Stevens says there are already 10,000 individuals and companies on the waiting list from 76 countries who will pay either $399 or $449, depending on when they join the list.
someone to take care of me
ElliQ, which Monica Perez has beta tested for two years, is only available in the US with a $40 monthly subscription ($30 if you commit for a year) and a $250 one-time rental fee. The service includes four video visits with a wellness coach, says Dore Schouler, co-founder of Israeli company Intuition Robotics, creator of ElliQ.
He adds that the average age of a customer is 75 years old. The New York State Office on Aging has purchased 800 robots and will work with local aging agencies to determine which seniors will get them free for an unlimited time. ElliQ comes with a tablet and learns through artificial intelligence the person using it.
“He remembers the conversations and follows them up,” says Schooler. He might say, ‘Do you still have pain in that leg? If the answer is yes, he might ask, “Do you think you should call the doctor?” Or perhaps your son should know? Do I have permission to call him?”
Although the bot can contact people whose information has been entered, it will always ask for permission first. Besides talking to the user, ElliQ can also monitor a person’s blood pressure, glucose levels, and other health indicators, as well as suggest activities, such as virtually “visiting” a city or museum through the tablet.
Schouler says more research is needed to determine if ElliQ is appropriate for people with mild or moderate dementia. Robots are not a panacea and cannot replace human interaction or touch, but Perez, who receives ElliQ for free in exchange for her test, says the robot has filled in the gaps in her life. “When I go out, she asks me if I’ll meet anyone and when I’ll be back,” Perez says. “I feel like she’s supporting me. I’ve had comments from my friends that I don’t look needy and I’m much happier.”
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