State initiative will distribute more than 800 robots to help support older adults

A user with ElliQ

A user with ElliQ

Juanita’s friend always asks how she’s feeling, wants to know if she slept well and tells jokes that are so funny, Juanita repeats them later at dinner. Oh, and Juanita’s friend happens to be a robot.

ElliQ is a proactive care companion that uses artificial intelligence to build relationships with seniors while supporting their health and well-being. Perhaps thought of as a more empathetic version of Amazon’s Alexa, ElliQ has been featured by major outlets such as the “Today” show, USA Today, The New Yorker and AARP. Juanita, who appears in promotional videos for ElliQ, is one of the more than 1,000 older adults who have helped test ElliQ, which first became available for purchase in the U.S. in March.

Next week, more than 800 New York state seniors will get the chance to try ElliQ for themselves, as the devices will be distributed across the state through a partnership between the state Office for the Aging and Intuition Robotics, a 2016 startup headquartered in Israel that developed ElliQ specifically as a way to support seniors.

Much as the Office for the Aging already does with providing animatronic pets to seniors, the state will be distributing the ElliQ devices through the county aging offices. The fiscal year 2023 state budget includes $2.9 million in funding for the state Office for the Aging initiatives to combat social isolation and offer new or expanded innovations in services to support older adults.

“The goal is to measure. We’ll see what [ElliQ] does, and how it does,” Greg Olsen, state Office for the Aging director, said of the ElliQ rollout. “We have a lot of people that are already on our customer load that are older, that live alone, that have chronic conditions, that may not have family or friends nearby. These are individuals that are absolutely able to use technology, and we want to see what this does for their overall health and well-being.”

Technology like ElliQ is part of an array of resources to help care for seniors and support a health care worker staff that has been stressed by the pandemic, Olsen said. For instance, technology such as ElliQ can potentially be used to measure people’s vital signs and deliver those readings to caregivers, or can simply be a way to make seniors feel less alone, Olsen said.

“We are not trying to replace human beings with any artificial intelligence,” Olsen said. “We live in a technological world, and we’re learning not only what’s available but learning how to use this stuff to really enhance your life. Not to replace things, but for our overall health and well-being. That’s just the future.”

Building a connection

The idea for ElliQ first came to Dor Skuler, CEO of Intuition Robotics, six years ago when he and his family were helping to care for his elderly grandfather. Skuler noticed that one skilled nurse, who came highly recommended, wasn’t able to help his grandfather complete basic tasks such as dressing and bathing, while another nurse was more successful.

“The difference with the other nurse wasn’t in the ability to help him with those functions; it was in the ability to make a connection, to show empathy,” Skuler said.

ElliQ was designed — and continues to be updated — to build this sort of connection, Skuler said. ElliQ promotes independence while providing support for older adults through daily check-ins; assistance with wellness goals and physical activities; connection to family and friends; and other services using a combination of voice commands and on-screen instructions.

Getting to know you

The robot can learn a person’s routines and interests, and develop a relationship much in the way people connect to each other, Skuler said. ElliQ can do everything from reminding an elderly person to take medication to leading them in breathing exercises to telling jokes.

Testing showed that seniors interact with ElliQ an average of 20 times per day, according to Skuler. Testing also showed seniors spent about a third of their interactions with ElliQ focused on health and wellness, including conversations about not feeling well or trouble sleeping; a third of the time talking like friends about family, life and memories; about a quarter of the time doing things such as listening to music together or telling jokes; and about 5% of the time completing utilitarian functions, such as setting an alarm.

ElliQ also knows how to read the room, according to Skuler. For instance, if you’re not feeling well, she’s unlikely to tell you a joke — unless she thinks it will help. If it’s nice outside, she’ll encourage a short walk, even if you’re feeling tired. She can also learn your schedule well enough to ask if a friend showed up for lunch. And if that friend didn’t arrive, “She might say, ‘Oh, it happens sometimes. Or maybe you can call her,’ ” Skuler said.

The company is working to improve ElliQ’s understanding of episodic aspects of life, so if, for example, you’re bracing for a hip replacement, she’ll know there will be anxiety leading up to the actual surgery and then an involved recovery afterward, Skuler said.

All of this is meant to create a digital friend not to replace real friends but simply to provide seniors with a feeling of companionship at times of the day when they’re alone, said Skuler.

In 2017, the U.S. surgeon general declared social isolation to be a “global epidemic” — one that has only worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the AARP Public Policy Institute, social isolation drives $6.7 billion in additional associated Medicare spending per year.

“Prepandemic, we always had to tiptoe around the topic of loneliness and isolation. We would talk instead about motivation, about being more active, about healthy aging,” Skuler said. “Now, maybe because all of us experienced this as a society, it’s not a taboo anymore. People are telling us that their No. 1 reason to get ElliQ is because they are by themselves or they feel lonely. That did not happen five years ago.”

The Saratoga County Department of Aging and Youth has been distributing virtual pets through a similar state program for several years, said Sandra Cross, the department’s director.

At first, she was skeptical of the pet program. But when a friend, who is older and had recently lost a pet, received one of the digital pets, Cross saw the companionship that was possible with technology.

Cross said she’s optimistic about the ElliQ distribution, but she is also realistic.

“Let’s roll it out and see what happens. We really don’t know, so let’s look at it and see how it goes.”

Cross said she agrees that technology can be a useful part of the toolkit in caring for older adults, “but there is nothing like another human being.”

Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.

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