by Andrew Smith
26 June 2017

Robots for Seniors

The robot revolution is upon us, but it has a different face than the human-like robots in Isaac Asimov novels or Jetson’s cartoons. These robots are cylinders and boxes that look more like a popular kitchen appliance than a human. Amazon, Google and now Apple are vying for control of the home with their artificial intelligence-enabled, machine-learning and voice-activated products.

There’s been a lot of hype surrounding this technology so I feel compelled to weigh in. Why might these devices and their functions matter to seniors, their families and therefore to Brookdale residents?

I think a major percentage of the value for seniors comes from the same commonplace reasons these tools are so useful to me – access to music, news, reminders, shopping lists, and timers. And then there are the delightful, goofy features, like Echo’s “ask me a joke” that I recently explored with a group of Brookdale residents. We discovered this glorious groaner: “Alexa, tell me a joke.” “Okay. …. Where did Napoleon put his armies? …. His sleevies.”

The commonplace aside, here are three reasons I think these tools can be of immense value to seniors:

1. Voice-based interfaces

Communicating with the device by talking to it brings convenience for me, and for some seniors, this feature can eliminate barriers to using technology and allow them to participate in the incredible tools the internet has to offer. For me, asking Alexa to turn on the lights in the living room is a novel convenience, but for some seniors it can become a significant improvement in quality of life because of their mobility issues.

Recently, a very active 92-year-old woman told me, “Being old is the most frustrating time of your life. You don’t have the energy you want. Sometimes you think twice about getting up to change the thermostat.” Having a tool that can take care of simple household tasks alleviates some of that frustration.

2. Connecting with others

The video promoting the Echo Show, more than anything else I’ve seen, highlights the possibilities for connecting with others.  Go watch it. I’ll wait…  It shows all the value of the tool for connecting multiple generations across distances. The new parents contact the experienced grandmother. The working mother sees her daughter painting a room with her grandfather.

This visual experience is why FaceTime is the most popular app for our residents who are part of our iPad training classes. Video really makes a difference, but even the ability to use voice to “call” or “text” loved ones through devices without screens and cameras is valuable.

3. It’s a robot so it never gets tired or annoyed

Saturday Night Live had a recent skit about a fake version of the Amazon Echo geared toward “old people.” They called it the Amazon Silver and it came with comical features like being super loud, responding to any name that even remotely resembles Alexa, adjusting the thermostat and an uh-huh feature for long, rambling stories. (Note that adjusting the thermostat is an actual feature of these tools when integrated with a smart thermostat.) While comical, this skit highlights one of the reasons robots such as the Echo can be especially good for people with cognitive issues. You can ask it the same question over and over again and it never gets tired, judgmental or annoyed. 

You’ll notice I didn’t include anything about healthcare on this list. That’s on purpose because I think too often we simply reduce our elders to consumers of expensive healthcare instead of the wizards of history and relationship-oriented jokesters they more often are.

So, what’s next? I’m excited to see Amazon, Google and Apple battle it out, improving functionality and reducing costs along the way. I’m also excited to see how social robotics companies like JIBO shake up the field.

These tools help senior living providers like Brookdale better serve our residents and their families. Because they offer so much value to the individual and are so easy to use, I expect people will either purchase one themselves or be delighted if someone offers to buy one for them (and shows them how to use it – which also allows for some one-on-one quality time with a loved one)!


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