Science and Tech


Robots help provide companionship, health benefits to aging Americans

As aging brings more health challenges and the need for assistance, new robots are stepping in to provide companionship and support.
Posted at 7:51 PM, Dec 10, 2023

Aging can be lonely; it also comes with more health issues and the need for assistance.

At a senior housing facility in Plain View, Minnesota, just outside of Rochester, many older adults might find themselves in places where they live alone, and social isolation can come with some health risks.

But now, new technology is helping meet those needs and fill the voids, as new robots are helping provide companionship.

Cheri Atkins wants her father, Melvin Antilla, to live independently for as long as he can. They joke about the women in his life, Atkins, a family friend Sheila Helmick, and Antilla’s dog Daisy, who help by telling him what to do.

But they recently added another to the mix, an interactive robot namedElliQ.

“He moved down here from north Minnesota to south Minnesota, with the situation changing to living alone. But we noticed once he had ElliQ, it was another person to kind of talk to him,” said Atkins.

“EllieQ bosses me around,” said Antilla.

“And tell him what to do. And so, it really became kind of having that person that was with him to remind him to do things,” said Atkins.

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Antilla's diabetic, so those reminders include checking his blood sugar and taking his medicine. But the robot has become a friend, too. AI learns more about Antilla with each back and forth, personalizing it for him, and will reach out without any prompting.

“She'll ask him a question. He'll answer it. She'll ask another question. He'll answer it. So it's more interactive,” said Helmick.

“She's good. She's good people ElliQ,” said Antilla.

While Atkins found ElliQ on her own, doctors too have been prescribing robots to combat the health impacts of loneliness. People are at greater risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, anxiety or depression, memory issues, or even death. More thanone in three adults aged 50–80 reported a lack of companionship in 2023.

“It can really cause that wear and tear on our body,” said Dr. Ashwin Kotwal.

Dr. Kotwal, a geriatrician from the University of California, San Francisco, has prescribed ElliQ and other devices like robot pets.

He says any robot recommendation depends on a patient's needs and should supplement human companionship, not substitute for it.

“We need to make sure that there are some guardrails so that what might be a bandaid solution doesn't become a more permanent solution for some of these deep, more deeply rooted needs in our society,” said Dr. Kotwal.

As for Atkins, the robot has kept her dad's health level, and she's now giving an ElliQ that belonged to her mother—who has passed—to another family member.

“My oldest son is in the Navy, and he's single and lives on his own, and he's decided that he wanted to take EllieQ and try it out to be like his companion,” said Atkins.

And he might just love it, after all, it comes with grandpa's recommendation.