CW: Pet Loss
83-year-old Jan Worrell lives near Washington State’s Long Beach Peninsula. She has a new roommate who spends a lot of time in her living room. “This is ElliQ. I call her my roommate,” Worrell told OPB in June.
ElliQ isn’t Worrell’s new pet. It’s a robot. Worrell is part of a pilot program testing artificial intelligence’s ability to reduce isolation and loneliness among seniors.
ElliQ looks like a humanoid, complete with a head and shoulders. The robot has conversations with Worrell. Worrell seems to enjoy ElliQ’s company. “I talk a lot, and I love it. I need someone to interact with, and she does,” Worrell told OPB.
ElliQ consists of a smart speaker, tablet computer, videoconferencing, and AI software. Intuition Robotics created the device. The company hopes the device will help allow people to remain in their own homes as they age.
ElliQ can assist with various tasks, such as medication reminders and keeping track of important dates, and it can even recommend neighborhood coffee shops. Worrell enjoys having the robot as a companion.
Worrell, a widow, will occasionally ask ElliQ to join her for coffee. One day, the robot suggested that they meet in Venice, Italy, at a spot near the famous canals. ElliQ then poured a virtual cup of coffee while playing music alongside pictures of Venetian gondolas.
Worrell is one of 20 rural elders from Washington’s Pacific coast who have been chosen to get one of these Israeli-designed robot companions. As part of a pilot initiative managed by the Olympic Area Agency on Aging, she receives it for free for a year. O3A serves Pacific, Grays Harbor, Jefferson, and Clallam counties.
Separately, over the last two years, senior services agencies around the state have distributed over 700 interactive robot puppies and kittens to older adults suffering from loneliness or dementia. The pets are lifelike, even wanting their stomachs rubbed like a typical house pet.
Jan Worrell’s son Jeff Whiting watched as his mother interacted with ElliQ. He is impressed but is also concerned about the safety of the device. The device collects information regarding Worrell’s habits and daily activities, such as changes in her sleep patterns.
For Worrell, the combination of the companion robot and a medical alert system has changed how long she intends to stay in her house. Worrell said in May that she felt confident enough to cancel her deposit for an assisted living residence near her daughter in Eugene, Oregon.
The public education coordinator at Fire District #1 in Pacific County, Washington, where the Long Beach Peninsula is located, has also taken an interest in age-tech to improve the safety and well-being of rural seniors.
Lani Karvia said she has experimented with Amazon’s Alexa-powered smart speakers for elderly people on a budget. Alexa does not require a monthly membership. Karvia also keeps a spare ElliQ companion robot on her desk to show visitors.
Karvia’s favorite feature is that elderly people who fall in their house can summon aid simply by shouting at the smart speaker from the floor. Because neither Amazon’s Alexa nor ElliQ can call a contact to report an emergency or dial 911, the user would have to ask the device to do so.
In China, the GR-1 humanoid is currently in development. The humanoid will be able to transfer people from their bed to their wheelchairs and help pick up objects.
One of the biggest hurdles that many disabled people face is finding caregivers. In the United States for example New York has one of the nation’s most significant predicted shortages of home health aides, followed by other mid-Atlantic and Midwest states such as Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.
The shortage is only predicted to get worse. To meet the demand for services as millions of baby boomers reach their 70s and may require more significant support at home, the industry will need an additional 450,000 home healthcare aides by 2025.
While artificial intelligence could be a valuable tool for caregiving, it won’t replace caregiving entirely. Technology won’t be able to replace human connections fully.
For me, my caregivers play an integral role in my life. They are more than just people who are paid to help me with activities of daily living. My current PCA knows what my favorite foods are and what juice flavors are my favorite. He knows my favorite local restaurants and favorite music too.
In school, I worked with the same paraprofessional for ten years. During that time, we became very close. She learned about my favorite foods, movies, and books. I was so excited when she took me to see the movie Cars in 2006.
When my childhood dog passed away, she was one of the first people I called. She came over the next day and we talked about the memories we had of Lowell. A bond like that would be impossible to form with a robot.
Assistive technology has played a vital role in my life. Without it, my ability to access the world would be much more limited. At the same time, no machine will replace the connections I’ve built with my caregivers.
Banse, Tom. “Would You Leave Grandma with a Companion Robot? Care Bots and Robot Pets Find Favor in Pacific NW.” Oregon Public Broadcasting , 30 June 2023, http://www.opb.org/article/2023/06/30/care-bots-robot-pets-for-seniors-washington-state/?outputType=amp.
Min, Roselyne. “Meet China’s Caregiver Robot to Help the Future Elderly and Patients.” Euronews, 12 July 2023, http://www.euronews.com/next/2023/07/12/worlds-first-mass-produced-humanoid-robot-to-tackle-labour-shortages-amid-ageing-populatio.
Rey, Michelle Del. “Wages for Home Care Workers to Increase by $3.” Times Union, 14 Apr. 2022, https://www.timesunion.com/state/article/Wages-for-home-care-workers-to-increase-by-3-17078683.php.
Taddeo, Sarah. “Caregiver Shortage: ‘No Pool of People to Pull from Now’.” Buffalo News, 11 June 2022, https://buffalonews.com/business/local/caregiver-shortage-no-pool-of-people-to-pull-from-now/article_769c12ce-e754-11ec-a974-4f66fec59629.html.