New York brings companion robots to retirement homes

In an initiative to combat social isolation, the New York State Office for the Aging (NYSOFA) will bring escort robots into the homes of seniors.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the way government agencies aim to support seniors through the digital divide has changed. In New York, local aging agencies have even recently turned to animatronic pets to help combat social isolation.

Now NYSOFA has turned to a different breed of robotic companion: Intuition Robotics’ ElliQ, a product that uses AI to proactively meet the needs of seniors.


The device is essentially a virtual assistant with a tablet sitting next to it in the dock. The device works via voice commands when addressed by name; For example, a user might say, “ElliQ, what’s the weather like today?”

The initiative, which was announced last month, began with a demo for the state’s aging service providers because there are 59 county aging agencies that NYSOFA works with, said Roger Noyes, NYSOFA’s director of public relations. In the next step, case managers will identify which older adults in their caseload would benefit from this technology.

These determinations are based on interest, age, and a comprehensive assessment to look for social isolation to determine if the ElliQ device can help improve outcomes; Outcomes are measured through self-reports, metrics gathered through the platform, and interactive relationships with case managers.

The plan is to start the setup process with individual users this summer.

NOT THE AVERAGE VIRTUAL ASSISTANT

Noyes said what makes this device unique is that it poses questions to the user based on AI. For example, if a user says they slept poorly, that information is saved, and ElliQ can modify prompts or questions to follow up, examining possible factors like hydration or chronic pain to see if those things can be improved.

“If you tell her, ‘I’m going to walk the dog,’ she now knows you have a dog,” explains Grace Andruszkiewicz, marketing director for Intuition Robotics, explaining that the device can ask the user the next day if they have plans to walk the dog.

She said the product combines proactivity with empathy to create an assistant that, over time, the user might come to see as a sort of roommate as it builds a closer bond with the user.

The user can set goals – health and wellness goals, for example – and then the interactions that the device initiates will be targeted. For example, ElliQ can suggest things like breathing exercises or nightly routines.

“Over time, as people share more information about themselves, it can cater to their individual needs and preferences,” Andruszkiewicz explained.

WHY SENIORS?

Social isolation has reached “epidemic proportions,” Noyes noted, and the COVID-19 pandemic has taken this to new heights. The effects of isolation can have a noticeable impact on physical health and public health spending, he explained.

Seniors are the target market, Andruszkiewicz said, because there’s a huge opportunity to make an impact. Citing demographic changes, such as aging baby boomer demographics, increasing life expectancies and a declining birth rate reducing the number of caregivers, there are a large number of people who could benefit.

The state has over 800 devices that it can distribute to seniors, she said. The company will provide presentations for employees in area aging agencies and for end users.

These presentations vary in style, from explaining the device’s capabilities through a live interaction to more general technical training – how different technologies can help address different challenges related to aging and how ElliQ can help specifically.

And the device has settings that can be customized specifically for users with hearing or vision loss, in addition to a night mode that dims the screen. Volume can be adjusted via voice commands in addition to a dial that older adults may be more familiar with.

To combat the effects of social isolation, NYSOFA recently launched a number of technology-related initiatives, with more in the works.

To date, the state has given over 4,000 animatronic pets to adults in their homes through area offices on aging, resulting in a 70 percent reduction in loneliness for participants. This program will be expanded to include over 10,000 additional pets funded from the state budget.

In addition, the state has partnered with GetSetUp to create a virtual platform for older adults to take online classes on a variety of subjects. Other states like Nebraska have also adopted this learning platform. Another newly announced effort in partnership with Trualta is the creation of a web-based platform for caregivers that state residents can use at no cost. It will help connect caregivers with older adults as well as people with disabilities.

Noyes explained that some of the office’s initiatives were underway before the COVID-19 pandemic, the subsequent closure of senior centers prompted NYSOFA to re-examine the resource delivery system: “We found that there are all these technological platforms, which could fill the gap and provide an adjunct for individuals who are socially isolated.”

Noyes dismisses the claim that older adults are not using technology, saying the data the agency has collected through these initiatives underscores the value of technology for this demographic.

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