Could Dining Robots Be the Next Big Thing for Senior Care?

The COVID-19 pandemic had a tremendous impact on the senior care industry, but it resulted in particular challenges for dining services. As senior care operations opened their dining services again, they not only had to contend with staffing shortages, but they also had to identify ways to continue to deliver quality dining experiences.

Dining robots have offered a potential solution. Seeing the potential of robots, the Front Porch Center for Innovation and Wellbeing launched a Bear Robotics ‘Servi’ pilot in June 2022. The pilot focused on Front Porch communities at San Francisco Towers and Casa de Mañana, and their newly released report highlights important findings the senior care industry can learn from.

Key Findings from the Pilot

Davis Park, vice president at Front Porch Center for Innovation and Wellbeing

Davis Park, vice president at Front Porch Center for Innovation and Wellbeing

The ‘Servi’ robot is capable of carrying food, drinks, and dirty dishes back and forth between the kitchen and dining tables. The self-driving robot includes attachments like drink trays, and bus tubs. Measuring 17 inches wide, the robot can easily navigate through tight spaces, and it can carry five to seven entrees at a time. It features adjustable speeds that can be programmed for each environment, and when it has completed a task, it automatically returns to its designated space. The robot is designed to work alongside humans, expediting the food service process and helping servers deliver meals and clear tables.

According to data from the report, the robots were well-received, with 65.4% of residents reporting that they felt the robots improved their overall dining experience. Additionally, 51.2% of residents reported that they believed the robots allowed servers to spend more quality time with diners.

Staff also responded positively to the pilot, with 51.3% of servers indicating that they were excited about the robots at the end of the pilot. Fifty-eight percent of servers also stated that they felt the robots allowed them to spend more quality time with the residents. Staff also noted that the robots could relieve them of some of the physical demands of carrying heavy trays, resulting in less pain. During a shift, dining servers took an average of 428 steps less with the robots’ assistance than they did before the robots were introduced.

Steps to a Successful Pilot

In senior care, implementing a major change can be difficult, but the Front Porch Center for Innovation and Wellbeing took strategic steps to maximize the chances of the robotics pilot being a success. Davis Park, vice president at Front Porch Center for Innovation and Wellbeing, feels the pilot’s success was largely due to the pre-deployment conversations and focus group discussions held. “It can be time-consuming, but we strongly believe that a little investment in the groundwork can make all the difference in a successful or failed technology project in senior living communities,” he says. “Collecting data was also an important part of our story. Whether our data points were from surveys, device metrics reports, pedometer readings, or focus group conversations, establishing metrics to gauge success helped provide validation on the investment.”

Clear, open, and honest conversation around the pilot also helped to prepare staff and residents for the robots’ introduction. “Change is always hard,” says Park. “The open discussions we had weeks in advance were helpful to make sure residents and staff felt heard about concerns they had about how ‘the robots are taking over’ or ‘this is going to take my job away.’” He notes that while there will always be a small group of people who disagree or feel uncomfortable, the Front Porch Center for Innovation and Wellbeing worked to reach out directly to those individuals and to understand their pain points.

The focus on deliberate and clear messaging also helped to address concerns surrounding the pilot. Messaging was delivered in-person as early as eight weeks before the robots were introduced to the community dining rooms. Multiple open forums leading up to the “go-live” kickoff created the opportunity to answer questions and address concerns.

“From our focus group meetings with residents and staff, we were able to collect this information and make adjustments to trainings and future conversations about the robots,” explains Park. “We also distributed digital and physical copies of flyers and letters that went out to all residents. And with that, we were able to head off many of the concerns and worries before they became problems and barriers to adoption.”

When it comes to using robots in dining services, Park has a word of advice for senior care operators. “Listen. Make sure to create the time and space for residents and staff to air their concerns, and also be prepared for those who may not be ready,” he says. “And just as importantly, if not more: Make it fun! During our go-live event, we covered the dining room with robot-themed decorations and had the robots pass out robot-themed candies and champagne. It was a party!”

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