The New York Times | Seniors Use Telepresence Robots

Jan 20, 2017 | Articles, Content

The New York Times recently featured how seniors use telepresence robots to stay connected in their article: Seniors Welcome New, Battery-Powered Friends.

Welcoming a robot into her family was never Maxine Duncan’s idea of a support aide in her older years. But this winter, she and her partner, Herbert Yarbrough, signed up to test a telepresence robot in their retirement community, the Heritage Downtown, in Walnut Creek, Calif. Their new pal has a screen for a head and scuttles around on wheels. The lure was being able to connect more easily with their families via video calls.

The couple were immediately smitten. They have named the robot Jimmy.

“It’s an easy name to remember,” said Ms. Duncan, 86, a former real estate broker. And Mr. Yarbrough, 89, takes the robot on the elevator to pick up breakfast downstairs.

“We want to keep up on technology,” said Ms. Duncan, who covets a self-driving car. “A lot of older people are isolated from people and ideas. Now we’re on the cutting edge.”

Rosie, the robot from “The Jetsons,” has arrived.

Early adopters like Ms. Duncan are on the front lines of testing new technologies that some experts say are set to upend a few of the constants of retirement. Eager not to be left behind, retirement communities are increasingly serving as testing grounds that vet winners and losers.

Some simple tools that can help older adults are already mass-market consumer items, like Amazon’s personal assistant, Alexa. Other inventions, such as virtual reality technologies and robotic limbs, are still in their early days but could soon provide more freedom, resources and constant care to retirees.

Some technologists see the most promise in the social dimensions. For too long, technology has been chasing problems rather than trying to delight human beings, said Joseph Coughlin, director of the AgeLab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Where are the devices that help us learn and expand our horizons?” he said.

Virtual reality, for example, can entertain, educate and engage us, he said. “It’s for young and old alike,” Mr. Coughlin said. “And it’s enjoyed, not needed. That’s the high ground.” These devices will especially help augment the adult child’s caregiver role, he added.

Thuc Vu, co-founder of OhmniLabs, helped invent the robot Ohmni that is now Ms. Duncan and Mr. Yarbrough’s companion.

Dr. Vu, who has a Ph.D. in computer science from Stanford, sees consumer robotics as the next big technology wave. “There’s a huge senior population, but isolation and loneliness is still common,” he said. “And we’re also running out of caregivers, since most of them are getting older.”

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