New York is giving robots “companions” to its elderly population

For better or worse, aging is inevitable. In fact, the Administration for Community Living estimates that there are nearly 54 million people aged 65 and over in the US, as of 2019.

New York state, home to nearly 4.3 million seniors, is planning a new initiative: providing its elderly population with “companion robots.” As reported by The Verge, the state is partnering with Israel-based Intuition Robotics to deliver these robots to approximately 800 people. Greg Olsen, director of the New York State Office for the Aging, explained to The Verge: “Many features drew us to ElliQ – which is a proactive tool, remembers interactions with the individual, focuses on health and well-being, stress reduction, sleep, hydration, etc. […] It focuses on what matters to individuals: memories, life validation, interactions with friends and family, and promoting overall good health and well-being.”

According to Intuition Robotics, the ElliQ robot is an “empathic care companion” that “establishes a long-term relationship with its older adult users, unlocking unprecedented ongoing engagement to promote a more active and connected lifestyle.” . The company claims that the robot’s platform can indulge in small talk, daily conversations, music, jokes and trivia, as well as even more cognitive tasks like setting reminders for tasks or connecting users with friends and family using messaging and video apps. In fact, it offers users a wide variety of intuitive products.

But why is this important?

Given the significant aging of the population in this country and in the world, the purpose of this device is to provide the elderly with a tool that will improve their quality of life. Many seniors do not need help and are extremely independent, fully capable of carrying out their activities of daily living. For many others, especially those with debilitating conditions and physical or cognitive impairments, extra support may be needed. Products like the ElliQ device are an attempt to help provide this support, although they are not perfect and certainly not comprehensive.

Supporting an aging population has increasingly become a focus in healthcare over the past decade. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Health Workforce Analysis report, compiled in 2017, issued a dire warning: “All regions of the U.S. are expected to have a geriatric shortage by 2025. […] Improving access to health care for all individuals in the United States requires a well-distributed and competent group of providers to meet the needs of an aging population. The number of seniors in the United States is growing rapidly […] The projections presented here suggest that, although the number of geriatricians will grow, this growth will not be enough to meet the demand for the services of a geriatrician.”

While companion technology is intended to fill some of the gap created by this scarcity, it is certainly not enough. The health system should also focus on holistic approaches to solving this problem, such as encouraging and training more physicians and professionals in elderly care, funding better resources and outreach programs for the elderly, and improving overall access to care. Ultimately, this is the only true way to ensure that an entire generation receives the care and respect they both need and deserve.

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