For good or for bad, aging is inevitable. In fact, The Administration for Community Living estimates that there are nearly 54 million people aged 65 or older in the USA, as of 2019.
New York State, home to nearly 4.3 million older adults, is planning a new initiative: providing its elderly population with “companion robots.” As reported by The Verge, the state is partnering with Israel based Intuition Robotics to deliver these robots to approximately 800 people. Greg Olsen, director of the New York State Office for the Aging, explained to The Verge: “Many features attracted us to ElliQ — that it is a proactive tool, remembers the interactions with the individual, focuses on health and wellness, stress reduction, sleep, hydration, etc […] It focuses on what matters to individuals: memories, life validation, interactions with friends and families and promotes overall good health and well being.”
Per Intuition Robotics, the ElliQ robot is an “empathetic care companion” that “establishes a long term relationship with its older adult users, unlocking unprecedented continuous engagement to promote a more active and connected lifestyle.” The company states that the robot platform can indulge in small talk, daily conversations, music, jokes, and trivia, in addition to even more cognitive tasks, such as setting reminders for tasks or connecting users with friends and family using messaging and video applications. Indeed, it offers users a wide variety of intuitive products.
But why is this important?
Given the significant aging population in this country and worldwide, the goal of this device is to provide seniors with a tool that will improve their quality of life. Many aging seniors do not require help and are extremely independent, completely able to preform their activities of daily living. For many others, especially those with debilitating conditions and physical or cognitive disabilities, extra support may be required. Products such as the ElliQ device are an attempt to help provide that support, though not perfect and certainly not comprehensive.
Supporting the aging population has increasingly become a focus in healthcare over the last decade. The United States Department of Health and Human Services Health Workforce Analysis report compiled in 2017 issued a dire warning: “All regions of the U.S. are projected to have a 2025 shortage of geriatricians […] Improved access to health care for all individuals in the United States requires a well-distributed, competent group of providers to meet the needs of an aging population. The number of older persons in the United States is growing rapidly […] The projections presented here suggest that while the number of geriatricians will grow, that growth will not be sufficient to meet the demand for the services of a geriatrician.”
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Though companionship technology is meant to quell some of the gap created by this shortage, it is certainly not enough. The healthcare system must also focus on holistic approaches to solving this problem, such as incentivizing and training more physicians and professionals in elderly care, funding better resources and outreach programs for aging individuals, and improving overall access to care. Ultimately, this is the only true way to ensure that an entire generation gets the care and respect it both needs and deserves.