New York State’s Office for the Aging, in charge of administering housing, transportation and health programs for the elderly, has purchased more than 800 robots to act as companions for older adults. The robot, ElliQ, was created by Intuition Robotics specifically for adults ages 65 and older that live alone, per the company’s website.
ElliQ, a tabletop device that resembles a virtual assistant like Alexa or Siri, can make small talk, answer questions, remind users to take medication, help contact friends and family, initiate conversation and help with other daily activities. Users interact with the robot an average of 20 times per day, according to the company.
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.,” NYSOFA director Greg Olsen told The Verge’s James Vincent last month. “It focuses on what matters to individuals: memories, life validation, interactions with friends and families and promotes overall good health and well-being.”
In 2017, the U.S. Surgeon General called social isolation an “epidemic,” per a statement from NYSOFA, and the Covid-19 pandemic has only made it worse.
Loneliness can cause a myriad of negative health effects, including “depression, poor sleep quality, impaired executive function, accelerated cognitive decline, poor cardiovascular function and impaired immunity at every stage of life,” wrote Amy Novotney for the American Psychological Association in 2019. It can increase health risks to the same extent that smoking 15 cigarettes a day or having alcohol use disorder does, per the APA.
Loneliness also costs money; it is associated with $6.7 billion in additional Medicare spending annually among older adults, per the AARP. Frequently, emotional support animals like dogs are used to help with loneliness, but animals have their own drawbacks. They require their own care, can have health needs, and in the case of dogs, frequently respond to one person only and can become stressed in group situations.