Telepresence Robots for Senior Care Health and Safety

Jun 1, 2020 | Content, Healthcare, Senior Care

Around the globe, COVID-19 is reshaping the way we communicate. Forced to limit in-person interaction due to social distancing guidelines, people across industries are utilizing new and existing ways to stay in touch remotely. 

Within the senior care industry, we’ve seen families and facilities scramble to adopt video calling using FaceTime or Zoom in order to stay connected to our most vulnerable population. Some families have shipped iPads to their loved ones in order to stay connected. Seniors who were previously reluctant to adopt new technology have had to evolve quickly in order to combat the loneliness and isolation that come from extremely limited or no visitation. 

While some seniors can navigate these tools successfully, many others are left stranded across the widening digital divide. According to a 2015 Pew Research Center survey, only 25% of internet users age 65 and over feel very confident using computers, smartphones or other electronic devices. While that percentage may have decreased over the years, seniors continue to face unique barriers to adoption including physical challenges. It’s difficult for some seniors to hold a smartphone, enable video conferencing apps with ease or even hear and respond to a simple telephone ring. These physical factors make it hard and often frustrating for family members to communicate with and monitor the health and safety of loved ones living far away or even across town. 

Fortunately, there is a relatively new technology that can help families stay in touch more naturally and with much less friction  — telepresence robots. While using a robot with the “digitally unprepared” sounds far off, this technology is ideal for seniors in many ways. Keep reading to learn more about telepresence robots, their benefits in senior care and how to get started. 

What Is A Telepresence Robot?

The term telepresence describes technology which enables a person to simulate being in one location when they are in another location. This can include observing the surroundings of their virtual location, or even interacting with objects or people in that secondary location. 

Basic telepresence systems will include only visual and audio feedback, frequently by streaming video to the user through a static camera stationed in the secondary location. A simple form of interaction is letting the user control the direction/orientation of the camera, so they can see more of the surroundings in the remote location.  

Telepresence robots build off of this general concept by enabling the user to control the robot and move throughout space in the remote location, or even interact with objects in the secondary location by manipulating the arms of a robot. Driveable telepresence robots are robots set on a wheeled base and capable of movement, and telepresence robots are considered “adaptive” and distinct from more immersive yet stagnant telepresence systems. 

Telepresence robots offer a full range of features. They can simulate the height of a person by having the camera and display mounted on a pole, with the camera positioned such that the device’s operator seems to have eye contact with the user. Some also feature a tiling neck to allow the user to see all the way from the ceiling to the floor. 

Telepresence Robots for Senior Care

Telepresence robots can be used for senior care in a number of different ways. One user, Elaine Stanton, relies on a telepresence robot to monitor her mother’s nursing home activity throughout the day. 

The robot has also been a tremendous help to Elaine in communicating with her mom’s care staff. Elaine can attend doctors’ house visits remotely and correct any inconsistent information her mom provides. “Mom’s short-term memory isn’t very good. If I’m on the robot, I can wave my arms to signal that’s not the case.” 

Telepresence robots can also be life-saving. Take the case of Richard Kiy and his 81-year old mother in California. One morning, Richard called his mother a few times and she did not answer. This was strange since she always woke up around 6:30 am. Richard then logged into an Ohmni telepresence robot and navigated around her home.  “It was like me coming into the house.” To his shock, he found his mother on the floor. She has suffered a fall, hit her head and could not get back up. His mom had been calling for help, but Richard’s brother — fresh off his night shift and asleep in another room — could not hear her. 

Richard was easily able to drive the robot into his brother’s room to wake him up. He then navigated back to his mom’s room and called 911. At the same time, Richard’s wife recorded the robot’s video feed on her cell phone, which they later shared with the doctor to help assess the extent of the injury. The incident triggered a conversation with the family about relocating mom to an assisted living facility with a higher level of care.

Telepresence Robots During COVID-19

In light of COVID-19, telepresence robots are a perfect resource for senior care. As part of the crisis, families and facilities have been scrambling to figure out how to connect family members with residents. Telepresence robots give families full control over the communication without having to rely on nursing home staff to initiate a video call. Operation is hands-free to the senior — the family member has the flexibility and freedom to drive the robot around the remote location as they like. Enjoy coffee with mom in the kitchen, watch television together in the living room, or make sure they get to bed safely at night. The freedom to roam is part of the magic of telepresence.

Tips to Getting Started with Telepresence for Senior Care

So how does one get started with telepresence for senior care? Below are a few tips based on user feedback. 

  • Respect their privacy. Assure your loved one that the robot is there primarily for their safety and protection, not to spy on them. Respect their privacy by letting know the time(s) of day you’ll likely log into the robot to check up on them. With a schedule they will be less likely to be surprised when you pop in for a virtual visit. 
  • Ensure there is enough space. For loved ones aging in place, space should not be an issue. But for family members in an assisted living facility, space may be limited. Make sure there is enough room to drive Ohmni around. 
  • Clear any obstacles. Before you get going, clear any obstacles in the room and cover the corners of antique or special furniture. Make sure Ohmni has a clear path and can navigate in and out of rooms and down corridors. If necessary, remove area rugs that might impede Ohmni’s movement. Also, until you become an expert driver, cover the corners of special furniture just in case you run into them by accident. 

You can request a full list of Getting Started Tips from OhmniLabs

We hope this has been a useful introduction to the features and capabilities of telepresence robots. As senior care advisors, it’s important to stay abreast of the latest technology in order to make appropriate recommendations to your clients. If you have any questions about telepresence, feel free to reach out to contact@ohmnilabs.com.

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