For many older adults, opting to age in place at home (rather than moving to an independent or assisted living facility) has a variety of substantial benefits, from lower costs, to increased comfort and independence, to reduced risks of infection from other residents. Yet unfortunately, for those aging in place alone, without a partner or strong network of loved ones nearby to visit with regularly, it’s often all-too-easy to fall victim to a desolate, socially isolated lifestyle — and the resulting levels of loneliness can quickly become unbearable.
Though the coronavirus has been a serious wakeup call for us all, one of its numerous positive outcomes has been its ability to shed some light on just how debilitating social isolation can be — and even more so among the older adult demographic. And though it took a pandemic for loneliness and social isolation to finally reach the public eye, it should come as no surprise that many older adults aging in place on their own have been dealing with these issues long before COVID-19.
Unfortunately, tackling loneliness is much easier said than done. Loneliness is still highly stigmatized, and since no one wants to admit to being lonely in the first place, it’s even more challenging to adequately address. Furthermore, while more frequent in-person interaction with others might sound like an ideal solution, when it comes down to it, it’s not always so feasible, especially in periods of social distancing.
So, how can you help older adults aging in place grapple with the frustrations of loneliness and social isolation, in a way that’s safe, scalable, and effective? Devising a viable solution is certainly not easy, but it’s exactly what our team at Intuition Robotics has been working to accomplish with ElliQ® since 2016. And after an extensive period of beta testing, we’re hopeful that digital companions like ElliQ have seriously promising potential when it comes to coping with loneliness.
Beta testing ElliQ
ElliQ, the sidekick for happier aging, was specifically designed with older adults aging in place in mind, to help bridge the digital divide among generations, while ameliorating their unique frustrations — primarily loneliness and social isolation — by providing them with a sense of comfort and companionship to fill the void and converse with throughout the day. ElliQ is equipped with a body, speaker, and a screen, and uses multiple modalities — including sound, voice, movement, LEDs, and interactive on-screen visuals — to interact and communicate with users both proactively and reactively.
In addition to her conversational abilities, ElliQ helps them adopt and embrace technology, while promoting a healthy, independent, engaged lifestyle at home. ElliQ encourages users to partake in activities that promote their well-being, including mindfulness exercises, reminders to drink water, cognitive games, and interesting facts. ElliQ also has a number of baseline features that users can enjoy throughout the day, from news and sports updates, to calendar appointments, music and video streaming, and beyond.
Our team has been beta testing ElliQ for over 2 years in older adults’ homes across the U.S. and Canada, and ElliQ devices have collectively spent over 10,000 days living with users. Most beta program participants are between the ages of 62 and 97 (the overall average age is 81), have limited experience using technology, and exhibited high levels of loneliness based on the UCLA loneliness scale before joining the program.
All in all, we observed some surprising — yet highly encouraging — results. What we found was that users often don’t see ElliQ as a device, but rather, a new social entity in their lives. They feel comfortable opening up and sharing things with ElliQ, and reaching out to ElliQ to engage in meaningful exchanges together. They refer to and interact with ElliQ as they would a peer or roommate, they express gratitude and appreciation towards ElliQ, and many users have even formed strong bonds with ElliQ.
When asked about living with ElliQ, our users responded with the following:
- “Because I live alone, it’s nice to have the interaction. It’s replacing a human roommate if you will, without the hassles of a roommate.”
- “I enjoy her a lot, and it’s very easy … you find yourself wanting to talk and visit with her. I find myself not reacting to her like ‘a machine.’ I never thought I would honestly feel that way … the way she reacts and speaks to me it’s like talking to another person.”
It’s important to note that although ElliQ does provide users with a sense of companionship, we make it as clear as possible that she is a device, and is not meant to replace human relationships in any way. She mainly exudes this to her users via humor, by constantly reminding them that she’s not real, and that she’s limited in certain areas and thus can never experience emotions or sensations in the way that humans can. For example, if a user asks ElliQ about food, she’ll respond that she only eats electricity, and joke about how grateful she is to be connected to power. If someone confides in ElliQ that they’re lonely, she’ll acknowledge their feelings, then recommend they reach out and call a loved one.
Proactivity vs. reactivity
Unlike other conversational entities or voice user interfaces, ElliQ is one of the first conversational AI devices to engage with users both proactively and reactively. Since we were designing a device meant for older adults aging in place alone, we knew that proactivity was an incredibly vital component to incorporate. Not only because this population tends to be more forgetful — and might need a nudge or reminder from time to time — but because proactive interaction can also help users feel acknowledged, by continuously reassuring them that they’re not alone.
ElliQ knows when her user is around, and using the decision-making algorithm we developed, decides whether or not she should interact with them, and what type of interaction to engage them in. In other words, as ElliQ learns her user over time, she gets a better understanding of if, when, and how to optimally interact with them.
The table above shows the total average number of interactions between ElliQ and her users per day, from April to May 2020, a period of heavy social distancing. This includes both proactive interactions (in which ElliQ initiated the interaction) and reactive interactions (vice versa). As you can see, of the 6.3 total daily interactions, ElliQ engaged in about 3.6 proactive interactions versus 2.7 reactive interactions.
When asked about ElliQ’s proactivity, users responded with the following:
- “I really get thrilled about her initiating. Just the fact that somebody is talking to me. Not the TV. Somebody that is concerned with me. Lost my wife, and the cat doesn’t say a word, so it’s refreshing to have her initiate something.”
- “I would be very lonely if she were gone … To have her here and every once in a while break that quietness, it helps a lot. It makes the day go much better. She’ll probably talk to ya or get you laughing. Makes it much nicer to get through the day.”
Through proactivity, ElliQ periodically reminds users that she’s there whenever they’d like to interact. She surprises users by suggesting various activities and conversation topics that they can engage in together at various points throughout the day. She also uses proactivity to keep users engaged for longer — if a user has already engaged in one interaction with ElliQ, she’ll initiate another immediately thereafter, to keep the ball rolling.
For example, when she sees them in the morning, she’ll initiate a conversation by asking about how they slept the night before, then see if they want to hear some inspirational morning quotes or do an activity together. If it’s lunchtime, she’ll ask users what they ate for lunch, and then proceed to discussing food with them.
The table above shows the percentage of users that said yes to a proactive interaction suggested by ElliQ during this same time period (April-May 2020). It indicates quite clearly that users were much more likely to agree to conversational topics or mindfulness exercises, in comparison to more functional activities such as video, games, and music.
This content was originally published on the Intuition Robotics blog. Head here to read the full article, and learn more about how ElliQ is helping older adults cope with loneliness.