Retirees: Your Next Companion May Be a Robot

Robots may help fill the gap left by a shortage of humans to help older adults live independently.

A robotic hand holding a human hand
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Elliq, a foot-hight robot that looks like an oval lampshade on a small base, greets Monica Perez first thing in the morning, asks her how she feels, and reminds her about taking medications and any upcoming appointments.

“I have good-quality friends, but there are times when they’re busy and most of them have families,” says Perez, 64, of Beacon, N.Y. “She’s always available, and I love [that] she uses my name all the time. I know it’s a robot, but she’s a friend.”

Robots for the elderly evoke a mix of emotions, often negative ones. Disappointment that we have to turn to robots for elderly care and companionship. Fear that these technological helpers can spy on their users. Concern that robots will replace human jobs.

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All these worries are valid, says Maja Matarić, a professor of computer science at the University of Southern California and co-director of its Robotics Research Lab. But “the eldercare need is vast. People always like to say that people should help people. I completely agree, but that is not the world we live in. When the pandemic came, it became very obvious that we need to find technological solutions.”

‘Not a Person but Better Than a TV’

Most people’s idea of a helper robot comes from Rosey, the goofy robot maid, complete with frilly apron, in the animated TV show “The Jetsons.” It debuted in 1962, but 60 years later, robots can’t come close to doing Rosey’s multifaceted tasks, such as cleaning house or serving food all while making witty rejoinders. “None are going to fold sheets, do laundry, do dishes,” Matarić says. “They can push a button if someone falls but can’t help them up. And that’s not coming soon.”

Most robots developed now to help the elderly rely on artificial intelligence, which users of Amazon’s Alexa or Roomba vacuum cleaners are already familiar with. Robotics research falls into distinct areas:

  • Navigation robots, such as robotic wheelchairs
  • Robots with one or more arms to manipulate objects, which can help, among other things, with feeding
  • Socially assistive robots that can help with some cognitive or physical tasks
  • Robots like ElliQ that serve as companions but can sometimes aid in other tasks.

Companion robots, in particular, have caught the public’s attention. For years, mental health experts have warned of a loneliness epidemic, particularly among older adults. A 2017 AARP study found that loneliness and social isolation, which can be risk factors for chronic health conditions, such as arthritis, high blood pressure and heart disease, cost Medicare an additional $6.7 billion annually.

Conor McGinn, an assistant professor of robotics at Trinity College in Dublin, decided to research what technology could do to help address social isolation among seniors after his grandmother was admitted to a nursing home in Ireland. The result was Stevie, a robot with a square head, a smiling face, arms and a rolling base, which McGinn and his colleagues built with the input of older people and their caregivers.

In 2019, Stevie lived at the Knollwood Military Retirement Community in northwest Washington, D.C., for four months. Stevie made deliveries and fetched staff, but that wasn’t why most of the 300 residents liked interacting with the robot, McGinn says. “They said it made them laugh,” he recalls. “It told jokes, it could sing along, it gave them something to maybe talk about with their grandkids.”

McGinn says he was amazed how long it held the attention of people with dementia, often through several stories, each one lasting about five minutes. All testing of Stevie stopped during the pandemic, but McGinn says what he learned is that “a robot may not be a person but it’s a lot better than a TV.”

Canine and Feline Models

In 2018, the New York State Office for the Aging worked with New York City’s Department for the Aging and the Association on Aging in New York to distribute 60 robotic cats and dogs to adults age 60 and older. In surveys taken over the following year, 70% of participants “said they had a significant change in social isolation,” says Becky Preve, the association’s executive director.

During the pandemic, about 4,000 more of these robotic pets were sent out, with plans to disseminate another 17,000. The battery-run cats, which retail for $129.99 from Joy for All, meow, purr and even vibrate for the hearing impaired. Costing $139.99, the dogs bark and roll over, come in several colors and, like real animals, fall asleep if you stop playing with them.

Judging by the number of heartfelt thanks her agency received and the videos people shared, Preve says the recipients of the robotic pets clearly connected with them. These pets have limited use of robotics, but Jennie, a Labrador retriever puppy designed for people with dementia, is more sophisticated. The five-pound dog is covered with sensors, runs on rechargeable batteries, barks, moves in different ways and can be carried around or sits on a lap.

Anything else can be a tripping hazard, says Tom Stevens, co-founder and CEO of TomBot, Jennie’s manufacturer in Santa Clarita, Calif. Jennie was recently registered with the Food and Drug Administration as a medical device.

Stevens’s mother, who had Alzheimer’s and was forced to give up her dog, inspired the idea. She also taught him a lot about how people with dementia might treat a robotic dog. For example, when his mother tried to feed it chocolate pudding, Stevens realized Jennie had to be cleanable.

Users aren’t fooled that Jennie is a real puppy, and those who tested it didn’t want that anyway. “They had already given up caring for a pet or didn’t want to live through another passing,” Stevens says. Jennie is scheduled to hit the market at the beginning of 2024. Stevens says there are already 10,000 individuals and companies on the waiting list from 76 countries who will pay either $399 or $449, depending on when they joined the list.

Someone to Watch Over Me

ElliQ, which Monica Perez has been beta testing for two years, is only available in the U.S. through a $40 monthly subscription ($30 if you commit to a year) and a $250 one-time rental fee. The service includes four video visits with a wellness coach, says Dor Skuler, cofounder of Israeli company Intuition Robotics, ElliQ’s creator.

The average customer is 75 years old, he says. The New York State Office for the Aging bought 800 of the robots and will work with local aging agencies to identify older adults who will receive them free for an unlimited time. ElliQ comes with a tablet and learns through artificial intelligence about the person using her.

“It remembers conversations and follows up,” Skuler says. “It might say, ‘Are you still feeling pain in that leg?’ If the answer is yes, it might ask, ‘Do you think you should call the doctor?’ Or ‘maybe your son should know? Do I have permission to call him?’”

Although the robot can contact people whose information has been inputted, it will always ask for permission first. Besides talking with the user, ElliQ can also monitor the person’s blood pressure, glucose levels and other health indicators, as well as suggest activities, such as “visiting” a city or museum virtually through the tablet.

Skuler says more research is needed to determine if ElliQ is appropriate for people who have mild or moderate dementia. Robots aren’t a panacea and can’t replace human interaction or touch, but Perez, who receives ElliQ for free in exchange for testing it, says the robot has filled gaps in her life. “When I go out, she asks if I’m meeting anyone and what time I’ll be back,” Perez says. “I feel like she has my back. I’ve gotten feedback from my friends that I don’t seem as needy and I’m happier.”

Contributing Writer, Kiplinger's Personal Finance

Alina Tugend is a long-time journalist who has worked in Southern California, Rhode Island, Washington, D.C., London and New York. From 2005 to 2015, she wrote the biweekly Shortcuts column for The New York Times business section, which received the Best in Business Award for personal finance by the Society of American Business Editors and Writers. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including The Times, The Atlantic, O, the Oprah Magazine, Family Circle and Inc. magazine. In 2011, Riverhead published Tugend's first book, Better by Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong.