Conversations with Alexa: How Robots Are Helping Canada's Elderly Population Connect - National

Conversations with Alexa: How Robots Are Helping Canada’s Elderly Population Connect – National

This is the ultimate story for Four part series Examining how automation will change Canadians’ lives, for better or worse.

At 100 years old, Madeleine Seguin’s social life is not slowing down.

A Brewer Village resident in Ottawa has a busy social calendar that fills up quickly between dinners with her family and neighbors in her seniors’ community.

But Séguin recently made another new friend that helps the perennial keep her schedule in order: Amazon’s Alexa.

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Séguin shares with Global News that there’s an ease in coordinating her schedule with Alexa, who remembers the phone numbers of her friends and family members.

Instead of searching for one contact after another, she can just ask Alexa to make calls for her—something she says came in handy recently when she found herself twice booked for lunch.

“I’m so amazed, you know, that I have to say, ‘Alexa’ — and there she is. And she answers everything,” he told Seguin Global News. “I really appreciate this.”

Alexa moved in with Séguin and a few other renters earlier in December as part of a pilot project with Amazon, marking the first deployment of an Alexa Smart Properties solution in a large living community in Canada.

Louise Collins-Tassi, another Bruyère tenant who has joined the program, says she has found Alexa “delightful” so far.

More than just the practical uses of the technology, Collins-Tassie says there is an emotional spark to conversations with digital audio.

One of her favorite interactions with her new robot friend is a very human one: telling Alexa, “I love you,” prompting the voice assistant to start a song in response.

“She’s really cute. She just tells you how much you love her,” says Collins-Tassie with a smile.

Robotics specialists and senior care professionals say there is real enthusiasm for more technology like this inside residences like Bruyère after years of labor and other healthcare disruptions due to COVID-19 pandemic.

Not only could robots be the physical companions necessary to keep aging populations healthy and engaged, but some experts say they could also be the social link many seniors crave after years of isolation.

Keeping Older Canadians Connected

Bruyère’s Alexa pilot program is made possible through a partnership between Amazon and Connected Canadians, a national nonprofit organization that provides training and technology support to seniors.

The ethos of the organization, says Emily Jones Joannis, is the belief that as the population gets older, there must be a deliberate effort to keep older Canadians in the loop in the same way coding and computer science lessons are forced upon younger adults.

“Digital skills are very important to our younger population, of course, but nobody cares about the elderly,” Jones Joannis tells Global News, citing “societal ageism” as one of the barriers preventing older people from embracing the latest technology.

Bruyère’s pilot project will see between 50 and 100 Alexa-installed devices in renters’ homes, depending on how many people opt into the program for about six months.

While they look similar to the types of Echo smart speakers increasingly common in Canadian homes, these particular devices have screens for video calling and a few premium privacy settings. Alexa can be programmed with some basic information, but it won’t record anything tenants say to analyze speech, Jones-Joannis says.


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The devices can be programmed to automate some jobs that used to be done manually by caretakers in the home, such as knocking on doors before meal times or bingo sessions starting in the hall.

Alexa can also host her own team games, with Collins Tassi pointing out that regular trivia sessions are a common use among her friends.

“Intuitive” communication key to using technology

Being able to summon Alexa with a single word, Jones-Joannis says, is “incredibly valuable” for seniors who may struggle with manual dexterity or poor eyesight.

Goldie Nejat, Canadian Research Chair of Robotics in Society at the University of Toronto, says the conversational element of advanced AI has been a game-changer in digital literacy.

“They’re more intuitive because they communicate in the same way we do,” she says of smart assistants.

Like Bruyère’s pilot, Nejat’s research team has been piloting the automation potential in nursing homes around the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).

But unlike Alexa, her team deploys humanoid robots with facial features transformed to match vocal intonation — smiling and laughing like any other home visitor.

Goldie survives with the robot Casper, who has been piloted in GTA care homes.

Submitted

The robots can take on a variety of tasks, including calling out bingo numbers, leading individual or group exercise sessions, or finding a resident whose family has called and bringing them up on a screen built into the chest area.

Najat highlights that one of the most practical uses for a robot is not just reminding residents of meal times, but actually engaging in the social act of “eating” with them. The machines can prompt residents with cognitive impairments to take next steps in eating with social cues and physical movements, she says.

“There are all these kinds of different ways, if you think about it, that we can support our seniors by providing that social, cognitive and physical assistance that they need,” she says.

If things are starting to feel like a little uncanny valley — that weird feeling when something isn’t quite human but might act in a way that resembles it — Nagat says irritability hasn’t been at the forefront of the population interacting with bots.

In fact, she says it’s been great to see people treat the robot like another dinner guest — asking how the mechanical companion likes his food or commenting on the delicious aromas at the table.

Like Séguin and Collins-Tassie laughing with Alexa, Nejat says her team has noticed a real pleasure in talking to robots.

“They are really eager to interact with technology. We measured their attitudes, their perceptions, and they were all positive.

An “absolute necessity” in a pandemic

Njat, who has been studying the social impact of robots for two decades now, says there was “automated payment” in aged care settings before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, but the past few years have fleshed out the potential of robots in this space.

Vulnerable populations living in care homes were more likely to contract COVID-19 infection and die, which led to strict isolation policies in most jurisdictions before vaccines were developed and made widely available.

Heartbreaking stories of elderly people being separated and isolated from care homes during the height of the pandemic have surfaced. In Michigan, a woman contracted COVID-19 early in the pandemic while living in a nursing home He reportedly asked Alexa for helpwhere she told the robotic assistant that she was “in pain” before she passed away a few days later.


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A long-term care resident involved in treatment at an IH facility


As part of Bruyère’s pilot program, while the Echo device can’t call 911 or contact emergency services directly, renters can ask Alexa to notify an employee or direct them to a personal emergency contact.

Throughout the pandemic, connected Canadians have stepped in to help seniors transition to telehealth as healthcare shifts from in-person to online. Technical prowess has suddenly gone from mundane to a lifeline for many Canadians, says Jones Joannis.

“We think digital literacy is a human right, but that’s become more and more true and more obvious in connection with the pandemic. We think it’s an absolute necessity,” she says.

Can robots be a balm for fatigue?

The weight of the pandemic is also evident on caregivers and the healthcare workforce more broadly, which have been strained to breaking point in recent years.

Long-term care homes in Ontario It started 2022 with up to 30 percent of employees out of work. In addition to the disease associated with COVID-19, the Stress and lack of support In the workplace after years of navigating the pandemic as major contributors to absences.

Nagat says that robotic solutions are ideal for tasks that don’t require a lot of thought or planning but give structure to residents’ lives, such as regular reminders or making calls to loved ones.

“They can do the same tasks over and over. They can do it with a smile on their face,” she says.

She adds that there are also uses for robots to help seniors in Canada age, reducing the burden on care homes and keeping residents in their homes longer.

In the past, case studies of robots in aged care settings have been limited to a day or two of research, but Najat says she has noticed an increased interest in long-term projects — and a reluctance to return robots after their long stays.

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Najat envisions a not-too-distant future where fleets of robots could be deployed in care homes to interact with each other and with residents, keeping day-to-day operations running smoothly.

She adds, however, that a retirement home or care home cannot and should not be run like a factory.

“Human interaction is still a critical component of care,” she says, noting that staff are better suited to making higher-level planning decisions that robots are not currently able to do.

But Najat says a high proportion of robots working in residences could reduce staff burnout levels and thus reduce staff turnover – something very annoying for residents who are used to the same faces around the house every day.

While digital media has been essential to survival during the pandemic, Jones-Joannis says having staff working with clients in person and sharing knowledge across generations is “much more acceptable.”

While their means may be technical, she says the ends of Connected Canadians are more about human touch than machine touch.

“Our philosophy, our way of doing things, is very much related to human connection as well.”

– With files from Ann Gaviola Global News


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