Seniors at a downtown Walnut Creek luxury living community are talking to new companions—robots—and dispelling the notion that the 70-plus set is not technology savvy. Due to a unique partnership between Home Care Assistance (HCA), a national in-home care provider, and Silicon Valley-based OhmniLabs, developers of the virtual care robots, families with seniors living independently at Heritage Downtown have a new way to communicate with them. Designed to improve the quality of life and combat isolation, the robots connect seniors to family and friends through a two-way video chat platform that includes a mobile base and display unit. The robots can be logged into and controlled from anywhere through the internet with a computer, which gives family members the ability to “check in” on their older relatives for a daily chat or a quick reminder to take their medication.
HCA Director of Operations Jesse Walters says instead of using FaceTime with his in-laws and moving a laptop from room to room so they can track the moves of their three-year-old grandson, “With the robot, I can cook dinner and they can move the robot and watch us. It’s terrific.”
The prototype robots resemble remote controlled vacuum cleaners with a long selfie-like stick holding a small screen. Lightweight for easy portability, the video bots are getting good reviews at Heritage Downtown, the senior community selected as the launch pad for a 90-day robot pilot program. Marketing Director Starr Mahoney says her residents are still getting acquainted with their new “guests” but believes adaptation will be fairly easy. “Since the Wi-Fi was upgraded here, we have people carrying laptops everywhere. When I first came here six years ago, residents would come to the desk with flip phones, asking how to use them. Now, they have smartphones and say, ‘Check this out.’ Sometimes I ask them for help. Our seniors are a pretty savvy bunch.”
Heritage Downtown residents’ tech savviness led HCA CEO Lily Sarafan and Thuc Vu, OhmniLab’s CEO to select the community for the pilot program. Vu said in an interview that early demonstrations with staff proved it was one of the most progressive senior living communities they had encountered. “I was impressed with their interest in adopting new technology and bringing it to seniors. Because of that, it’s working out very well,” says Vu. “The respect for the aging population there is key.” Resident Relations Director Jenny Shively says residents and their families are connecting, and they’re loving it. A 96-year-old who used a robot said, “Oh my gosh, I can see this, I can hear my son. The phone doesn’t work with my hearing aid. I love this.”
Vu first tested the robot on his grandmother, who lives in his homeland of Vietnam. “She didn’t like it at first, but when she saw my face on the screen, she changed her mind.” Vu and his partners have found a rare sweet spot in technology that has both social impact and economic value. Social isolation may factor into higher risks of mortality in adults age 52 and older, according to a 2012 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. And 2014 data from the Department of Health and Human Services shows that nearly a third of Americans age 65 and older live alone. “We talked to users and found out there’s a huge need for this in the aging community,” says Vu.
He estimates the fee to rent the robots will run $200 per month.
Mary Fenelon, 82, has lived at Heritage Downtown for two years. She has distant family members, enjoys using new technology, and remembers her mother falling at age 90 and not being able to get up. “I’m curious to try it. It occurs to me that I’m not as steady on my feet as I used to be. This is a good way to connect but remain independent.” Fenelon says she doesn’t like the idea of becoming a burden. With the robot, her daughter can use her computer to check in remotely and have instant, daily contact.