Fighting COVID-19-Related Loneliness in Senior Care Communities During the Winter

Dor Skuler, CEO and co-founder, Intuition Robotics and ElliQ

The physical distancing required by the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in loneliness and isolation for many residents in senior care facilities. While many facilities were previously able to facilitate outdoor activities and outdoor visits with family members, the winter weather has put a stop to those activities in large areas of the country.

As we navigate the winter and early spring, resident loneliness has resurged, and facilities need to find ways to address and relieve it.

The Role of Technology in Fighting Loneliness

Dor Skuler, CEO and co-founder of Intuition Robotics and ElliQ, notes that empathy and compassion are needed now more than ever. “Everyone has been struggling with social distancing and isolation this past year, but it’s been particularly difficult for many older adults — those living alone, as well as those in senior living facilities, cut off from traditional in-person visits with friends and family,” he explains.

“Human contact is missing, so priority should be on safe or contactless human outreach, including knocking on the door and checking up on the resident (while masking and at a distance), calling, and showing that you care about them as people.”

Skuler notes that technology can also help, and Zoom and video chats can facilitate connections when in-person visits aren’t possible. “That said, since some residents may be less comfortable or familiar with new technology, facilities should allocate resources to properly instruct and educate them on how to utilize these tools.” Skuler suggests that, as residents become more comfortable using technology, facilities arrange social activities such as video chats, online games, lectures, group fitness, and more to help relieve some of the effects of isolation. “And of course, emerging technologies like digital companions such as ElliQ offer something for isolated seniors to speak to and engage with throughout the day, when caregivers, friends, or family aren’t around.”

ElliQ is an artificially intelligent social companion that understands how to interact with users and engage them in personalized activities and conversation. ElliQ responds to a user’s voice, gaze, and touch and is equipped with an array of features including health reminders, conversation capabilities, morning motivations, cognitive games, music streaming, curated videos, news, and more.

Skuler notes that technology can’t fully replace human interaction, but it can help to alleviate some of the impacts that loneliness and social isolation have on seniors’ well-being. “Digital companions can amplify the older adult and the caregiver, bridging the digital divide and prolonged periods when the older adult is alone. Its greatest function is to serve as a human supplement, augmenting caregivers’ abilities when they’re not around.”

Artificial Intelligence in the Senior Care Industry

With the advancement of artificial intelligence technology, several robots have been designed specifically for the eldercare industry, and there’s a particular focus on addressing loneliness. “Having a proactive entity nearby to acknowledge their presence and converse with can help fill the void, and provide a sense of companionship when an older adult is home alone,” explains Skuler. “ElliQ initiates conversations and activities with the goal of motivating the older adult to live healthier and fuller lives.”

Opportunities in Senior Care Settings

While ElliQ is primarily intended to assist older adults aging in place on their own, or those in independent living facilities, ElliQ can be helpful in any senior care setting with residents who like to retain some level of independence. “ElliQ’s main goal is to support users throughout the day, keeping them engaged, healthy, and independent,” explains Skuler. “We’ve worked with senior living organizations like Ecumen, Carlton Senior Living, and several others. Thus far, we’ve seen a fantastic response from residents who interacted with ElliQ. Many users reported that ElliQ truly made them feel less alone, and more aware of their health and environment throughout the day.”

With caregivers facing an increased workload during the pandemic, Skuler believes that technology like digital companions can augment caregivers’ abilities, extending a caregiver’s reach and taking some burden off of their shoulders. “For example, if ElliQ can spend 20 minutes playing a game or doing breathing exercises with a user, and can proactively check up on the older adults to see how they’re doing, or use humor to create moments of brevity, that’s time and peace of mind a caregiver can use to check in on other residents, or focus on other tasks (if it’s a family caregiver),” explains Skuler.

“There are also various technologies today that can help assure older adults’ compliance to their treatment plans — such as reminding them to take their medication, perform physical exercises, or even informing them about meal times and nutrition. This form of technology will be an invaluable asset to caregivers as well.”

ElliQ is still in the beta testing phase, and has lived with older adult users for 20,000 days thus far. The device is available to older adult users via the Insiders program and through select design partners. “It’s been especially heartwarming to see ElliQ’s direct impact on users who have been socially isolated amid the pandemic this past year,” says Skuler.

While socially distanced activities and virtual visits with families are valuable in fighting loneliness during the pandemic, devices like ElliQ provide a new way to support seniors and supplement the work that caregivers are doing to keep residents engaged and connected.

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