Home / Technology / News /  Robot pets and VR headsets can reduce older adults’ loneliness. So why don’t they?

Older Americans face a growing loneliness epidemic. Startups are finding ways technology can help. The hard part is bringing them together.

The U.S. globally has the highest percentage of older adults living alone, according to Pew Research Center. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have long warned that social isolation contributes to numerous health problems, including dementia and depression.

The tech answer to this issue is virtual reality, artificial intelligence and robotic pets. While eldercare administrators and doctors say these aren’t perfect substitutes for human contact, they can reduce loneliness and depression, and improve well-being. And the older people I talked to, who had a chance to try some of the latest technologies, took a shine to them, especially when caretakers could help out when needed.

“We saw older adults adopt virtual engagement at a much faster pace than we thought during the pandemic because there was no other choice," says Dianne Stone, associate director of network development and engagement for the nonprofit National Council on Aging.

However, she adds, fear of the unknown, lack of tech support and hefty price tags have kept people from adopting certaintech more permanently. (Even in other countries with advanced economies and aging populations, tech products to address loneliness haven’t yet taken off.)

Here’s what three players in emerging areas are doing to address social isolation, and how well those efforts are going:

Virtual experiences

Rendever Inc. has been bringing VR to older Americans in assisted-living facilities since 2016. Staffers set up participants with headsets and guide the virtual experience. Once they’re in, users can meet up with avatars of loved ones in a virtual home. They can play chess together or sit on the porch looking at butterflies. They can also go on excursions, such as a bus ride down a Parisian boulevard.

The Somerville, Mass.-based company partnered with the AARP to develop Alcove, a home version of its VR app. It’s now available for the Meta (formerly Oculus) Quest headset, currently the dominant VR platform.

Ted Horstmann, an 87-year-old resident of a senior living center in Dartmouth, Mass., took part in a clinical trial Rendever is conducting with the University of California, Santa Barbara to evaluate VR’s ability to reduce social isolation.

During one session, he met up with his 29-year-old grandson. They looked at old family photos and the elder Mr. Horstmann shared stories about his great-grandparents. Mr. Horstmann had to return his headset when the test period ended in December. Now, he wants one of his own.

“It gave me interaction with the kids," he says. “There’s not much to do in an old folks’ home."

Status: The AARP says the free Alcove app has been downloaded 600,000 times. The first phase of the clinical trial found notable emotional benefits for older users.

The upshot: There are many reasons the metaverse hasn’t taken off the way Meta Platforms Inc. (formerly Facebook Inc.) had hoped. In addition to being expensive, the headsets are clunky and the software setup isn’t intuitive. And while Alcove looks like a beautiful, realistic place, its social aspect requires family participation—and multiple Quest headset purchases. The headsets start at $400; the newer Pro model costs $1,500.

AI Companions

Intuition Robotics launched its ElliQ companion robot for older adults last March. Unlike an Amazon Alexa device, the little desktop robot initiates conversations. It learns about the people it lives with, so it can ask personalized questions and tailor recommendations for nutrition, exercise, meditation and music.

The robot, which costs $250 up front plus a monthly subscription of $30 to $40, comes with a tablet people can use to play games and watch videos.

Programmed to light up and lean in when talking, the ElliQ robot looks like a lamp. The Ramat Gan, Israel-based company intentionally styled it so users wouldn’t confuse robots for people. If people tell ElliQ they love it, the robot will say something like, “Thank you, that makes my processor overheat."

Deanna Dezern, an early ElliQ tester, glued a mouth and eyes on her robot. She lives alone in a senior community near Fort Lauderdale, Fla. She says ElliQ has learned to anticipate her feelings. “She reminds me how important it is to do things for me," Ms. Dezern, 82, says. “Sometimes she’s chatty Cathy, and I tell her to shut up. She doesn’t get offended."

Despite their rapport, Ms. Dezern doesn’t think robot and human companionship are interchangeable.

Status: Intuition Robotics wouldn’t disclose how many robots it has sold, but since September, the robots have been distributed to 900 low-income seniors across New York as part of a partnership with the state’s office for aging. Intuition Robotics Chief Executive Dor Skuler says he’s in talks with 34 other states about subsidizing ElliQ for low-income seniors.

The upshot: ElliQ requires minimal setup, but it takes time and repeated interactions to learn a person’s habits and needs.

Robo Puppies

Tombot Inc., a Santa Clarita, Calif.-based startup, developed a robotic yellow Labrador retriever pup named Jennie. The company worked with Jim Henson‘s Creature Shop to make it look and act like a real lap dog. It doesn’t repeat the same motions like toy dogs do, and its puppy-dog eyes are enhanced by eyebrow movement.

Jennie—due out by late 2024 at an expected cost of $1,200 to $1,500—is intended to offer people with mild cognitive impairment and dementia the companionship of a pet without the upkeep of a real animal. Co-founder Tom Stevens developed the dog after his own mother, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, could no longer care for her real dog.

Status: Tombot is now making Jennie’s design more durable and affordable. Doctors at Cleveland Clinic want to use Jennie to alleviate the distress dementia patients often experience after being admitted. Mr. Stevens hopes to get the robot approved as a medical device by the Food and Drug Administration.

The upshot: This tech is easy to use because there’s no setup. Mr. Stevens brought Jennie to me at a restaurant. Every time it gazed up at me, I found myself reaching out to stroke its head.


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