Senior Living Sees Slow But Steady Robot Revolution

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Though the idea of robots aiding seniors like caregivers is still science fiction, futuristic technology is being embraced by senior living providers and residents on a more modest scale.

Recent studies have shown that older adults are fairly receptive to accepting help from robots for a variety of tasks, says Dr. Wendy Rogers, a professor of applied health sciences at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.


“I think that robots will be much more prevalent in our living environments in the not-too-distant future,” Rogers tells Senior Housing News. “There is still development and research to be done on the robotics side to ensure reliability and safety, and on the human side with respect to the interaction, but I definitely would not call having robots supporting older adults… a pipe dream.”

Are robots realistic?

Dr. Chaiwoo Lee, a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) AgeLab, says there’s a lot of potential for more robot use in senior living. The MIT AgeLab is a research program meant to improve the quality of life of older adults and their caregivers.


Still, they probably won’t resemble Rosie, the mechanical maid from “The Jetsons,” or Data, the android from “Star Trek,” at least not anytime soon. Robots currently in development include cute companions like ElliQJibo, Pepper or Kuri, which can remind seniors about different tasks or help them call their friends and loved ones.

“They all assist with communication…a lot of people who are working in robotics are going this way,” Lee tells SHN. “This is something we’ll see in the near future, I think.”

Robots that roam around on their own, clean or perform clinical tasks are possible, but probably won’t arrive until battery technology and artificial intelligence software vastly improve, says Dr. Elizabeth Zelinski, a professor of gerontology and psychology at the USC Davis School of Gerontology.

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“Robots are all well and good and cool, but right now… they are more of a gimmick than a real aid,” Zelinski tells SHN.

Assistive devices like smartphones, tablets and virtual reality headsets are currently much more useful than robots, Zelinski says. That’s partially because that technology is easier to understand and can do much more to help a senior stay independent and happy.

“Any kind of device that’s going to help people be more independent is going to be a winner,” she says. “As long as it’s not too expensive and people find it useful.”

The time is Nao

Many large senior living providers, such as Westport, Connecticut-based Maplewood Senior Living and Brentwood, Tennessee-based Brookdale Senior Living (NYSE: BKD) are experimenting with new ways to incorporate new tech into older adults’ everyday lives. Additionally, researchers and senior living providers alike have heralded the clinical benefits of Paro, a robotic therapy seal for memory care residents, for over a decade.

Most recently, a Brookdale community in Arlington, Texas, hosted researchers from the University of Texas at Arlington (UTA) and the Texas-Arlington Research Institute (UTARI), to determine whether reciting Shakespeare with a robot could lessen symptoms of depression and increase engagement for seniors.

Eight Brookdale residents spent one hour per week with Nao, a two-foot-tall robotic companion from global technology firm SoftBank Robotics. Nao, which costs about $9,000, can keep people company by walking with them, shaking hands, doing tai chi and telling stories.

In this case, Nao recited the first 12 lines of The Bard’s famous Sonnet 18, which begins “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” The robot then prompted residents to say the last two lines. The initiative was a smash hit, says Dr. Julienne Greer, assistant professor of theatre arts at UTA.

“We did have significant decreases in depression and significant increases in engagement,” Greer tells SHN.

The Brookdale residents took to Nao relatively quickly.

“Older adults really did find this futuristic machine… quite fascinating,” Greer says. “Everybody wanted to touch it.”

Though Greer’s background is in fine arts, she can easily imagine a day when robots might roam the halls in many more communities.

“Will more assisted living facilities see robots in this way, not just for service, but also as as companions? I absolutely think so,” she says. “I think it would make the residents thrilled to be able to have that kind of connection every day.”

Written by Tim Regan

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