How AI is improving nursing homes

22nd October 2019
Lanna Deamer


A growing number of care providers around the world have turned to AI-powered innovations to respond to the rapidly expanding needs of seniors. According to a United Nations report, the global senior population will more than double between 2017 and 2050.

As the senior population grows, researchers have been working to meet their healthcare needs. Artificial intelligence (AI) robots may provide a solution.

Today, care providers struggle to meet the needs of the senior population adequately. Robots, however, may enable caregivers to do more with fewer resources.

In the United States, nearly 20 million veterans are nearing retirement age. Simultaneously, the care provider talent pool is shrinking. Resultantly, the AI robots that make random appearances at airports, hotels and shopping malls are starting to show up in long term care facilities.

So far, AI companions are doing a good job

To meet the care needs of aging former soldiers, the Veterans Administration Palo Alto Health Care System (VAPAHCS) puts friendly AI robots to work. There, robotic canine and feline companions help senior veterans combat cognitive decline, loneliness and social isolation.

The VAPAHCS serves roughly 67,000 veterans in and around Palo Alto, CA. The agency manages a teaching facility and three long term senior care facilities as well as Alzheimer’s, geriatrics and mental health research facilities.

At the VAPAHCS long term care facilities, feline companions that cost less than $100 each keep veterans company throughout the day. The battery-powered toys use sensors to respond to touch by moving their head, paws and body.

The robotic cats engage residents with friendly squeaks, purrs and physical expressions such as rolling over for a tummy tickle. For veterans, the interactions provided by the toys are genuine.

The VAPAHCS staff members conduct a comprehensive assessment when admitting new long term care patients - including finding out whether residents were former pet owners. The facility also invites therapy dogs from the Paws for Purple Hearts Program to interact with residents.

If senior veterans appear to take a liking to the visiting dogs, VAPAHCS staff members assign that individual a Joy for All robotic companion.

Digital companions in the field

Hasbro has manufactured the Joy for All robotic toy line since 2016. They have limited capabilities, but they do respond to motion and touch. In 2017, the National Science Foundation, in collaboration with Hasbro, has earmarked a million-dollar grant to further investigate the line's potential for elderly care.

Through the Affordable Robotic Intelligence for Elderly Support (ARIES) project, researchers hope to enhance the AI capabilities of the Joy for All toy line. The researchers' work may involve machine learning and computer-aided vision which will enable ARIES companions to identify and track essential household objects.

In 2016, Israel-based Intuition Robotics launched another AI-powered innovation called ELLI.Q. It can't respond to touch. However, it does use machine learning and computer vision to make proactive suggestions about activities of daily living such as entertainment, environmental conditions and wellness.

For instance, ELLI.Q can arrange transportation and remind seniors to take medication. It can also remind users about appointments and make suggestions based on a current schedule. So far, Intuition Robotics has raised $20m for further research and development, $14m of which originated from Toyota AI Ventures.

In the meantime…

Elderly care affects millions of families across the United States. As the baby boomer population settles into retirement, their care needs will grow more diverse. Accordingly, it will become increasingly difficult for family members to determine the best care options for their loved ones.

It may take a little while before AI robots hit the mainstream. Until then, adults that care for parents must seek other alternatives.

Many seniors prefer to age in place. The National Institute on Aging (NIA) offers suggestions on how to care for seniors in their residence.

For example, the NIA recommends that family members hire geriatric care managers who make in-home visits and make sure to meet seniors' needs. Family members can connect with a geriatric care manager using the US Administration on Aging’s Eldercare Locator.

Cost is another reason why many families may choose to care for an aging loved one at home. The cost to house a loved one in a long term care facility can reach thousands of dollars a month. Family members can research resources for at-home care using the US Department of Health and Human Services website.

The future of AI companionship

The use of AI robots for senior companionship looks promising, but it’s still in its early stages. Before making significant achievements in using AI for senior care, researchers must overcome technological and ethical challenges.

For instance, how does one establish what’s acceptable for the preservation of human dignity and privacy? These issues are uncharted waters for researchers.

According to Dr. Holly Wilson, Professor of Philosophy at Louisiana State University, robotic assistants in nursing homes aren’t any different than a service animal or a personal assistant like Alexa or Google in terms of people’s dignity being preserved while using such assistants. 

“Robots can be programmed to be respectful and tactful and can relieve human beings of mundane tasks that might lead to boredom and hence mistakes being made. But robots are only as good as their programmers,” said Dr. Wilson.

For now, researchers are trying to develop fundamental artificial intelligence capabilities for in-home companions. In the future, scientists forecast that AI innovations will improve quality of life and wellness for seniors around the globe.

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