With COVID-19, Senior Loneliness is Higher Than Ever. We Made it Our Mission to Help

Technology and the pandemic is shifting care from the clinic to the home

We founded Intuition Robotics with the goal of helping older adults cope with loneliness and social isolation. Never has this been more important than right now.

COVID-19 has made a bad situation worse for millions of older adults. Many were socially isolated before, and now it is the same, only more so. I wanted to share with you what we are doing and the results we are seeing using ElliQ as an intervention. We hope that the silver lining of the pandemic will be that this important topic will become in focus now, and long after COVID-19 is over.

To help out during these turbulent times, we decided to do our share by providing ElliQ free of charge to older adults in the US that are willing to provide us with some feedback to continue improving our offering.

If you’re passionate about this topic and have additional ideas, please reach out to me on Twitter @dorskuler.

Loneliness and social isolation before and during COVID

In just a few short months, COVID-19 has drastically changed nearly every aspect of our lives – from the way we work, learn, shop, and exercise, to how we interact with others. While some of us have been quick to adapt to these changes, others – especially older adults – are now faced with even more challenges and frustrations.

Not only are they at higher risk of getting sick, but their social and family ties – which were already limited in the first place – are now completely cut off, as senior facilities shutter their doors, and family members are unable to visit their aging loved ones. What’s more, the frustrations around attempting to adopt the technology that many of us take for granted can make older adults feel even more isolated and disconnected from society.

Though this pandemic has opened the eyes of many to the immense adversities of social isolation, for many seniors aging in place alone, these hardships are sadly nothing new. Loneliness and social isolation have been, in a sense, silent pandemics for millions of older adults across the globe, since long before the coronavirus began to emerge. One study found that around 43% of older adult participants (ages 60 and up) reported feeling lonely. And when you consider the stigma around loneliness, it’s likely that the true number is much higher.

Quarantine and social distancing have made this bad situation worse. People that were previously isolated have now become completely cut off.

To make matters worse, these conditions have serious impacts on aging seniors’ physical, mental, and emotional health over time. Research has linked feelings of loneliness throughout the aging process to a variety of significant health issues, including heart disease, high blood pressure, a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, Alziemer’s disease, and more. One study even went so far as to put loneliness on par with the most prominent known mortality factors, such as obesity, lack of physical activity, and substance abuse. And the healthcare costs associated with loneliness and isolation are substantial – a recent AARP study with Stanford found that socially isolated older adults led to around $6.7 billion in additional Medicare spending annually.

We often find ourselves as active participants in a conversation that weighs the tradeoffs between human touch and technology (hint: both are important and neither replaces the other). However, during these unprecedented times, when human touch became impossible due to public health restrictions, technology became the only option.

We felt we had to do more.

We decided to provide ElliQ free of charge to older adults in the US. We were also interested to see what kind of impact ElliQ could make on her existing and new users amid this pandemic.

Forming meaningful bonds with ElliQ (before COVID-19)

After testing ElliQ for ~2 years in older adults’ homes throughout the US and Canada, we observed some pretty remarkable results. Many users don’t see ElliQ as a device, but rather, a new social entity in their lives. They open up to ElliQ about their thoughts and sentiments, and express feelings of gratitude and appreciation toward ElliQ.

ElliQ helps them feel acknowledged by greeting them in the morning and taking an interest in them, or by checking in during lunchtime, and engages users – both proactively and reactively – in meaningful dialogue, entertainment, inspiration, health reminders, mindfulness activities, and more. Older adults share with us that they feel that ElliQ takes an interest in them, lightens the mood, and makes an active effort to help enrich, improve, and manage their day.

Beta user ElliQ-1-1-2

We are seeing that in most cases, a true bond is formed between ElliQ and her users, particularly for those who are the most lonely and the least tech-savvy. What our research thus far has shown us is that many older adults crave something to converse and interact with during the long hours they spend alone at home. And having ElliQ’s presence around the house provides them with the much-needed sense of companionship they so badly desire.

Special benefit seems to come from ElliQ’s ability to remember and later reference things shared with her in following conversations. For more information on this topic, check out our recent post on how ElliQ is helping seniors cope with loneliness, where we take a deep dive into ElliQ’s usage metrics.

Expanding our Insiders program

Before COVID-19, we were primarily focused on bringing ElliQ to older adults’ homes via partnerships with senior and assisted living facilities. With the heightened concern around loneliness and isolation due to the pandemic, we had hundreds of concerned family members – as well as many older adults themselves – reach out to us about using ElliQ. As such, we wanted to do everything in our power to get more ElliQ units to those in need.

In an effort to help, our team quickly decided that now would be the perfect time to expand our Insiders program nationwide throughout the U.S., to bolster as many older adults interested in enjoying ElliQ’s company as possible. We also opened up our Insiders program to all interested participants, including both individual users and organizations.

Leveraging our partnership with Ecumen, we were able to seamlessly expand ElliQ’s presence within their living facilities, despite all the travel and social distancing restrictions. Their team provided us with unwavering support throughout this initiative, and we were able to deploy additional ElliQ units thanks to their help and cooperation.

To support individual users that age in place, our team streamlined the installation process and developed the capability to remotely assist the setup of ElliQ by the older adults themselves in their homes or by a family member. Seeing older adults, often in their 80’s, often at odds with technology, dive in and set up a cognitive AI social robot at home by themselves, was truly inspiring for our team to witness.

ElliQ’s usage trends amid COVID-19

We were very curious to see how usage behavior would shift during this time. We wanted to find out if ElliQ would have an even more important role in people’s lives during COVID.

Please note that the data below was obtained with the explicit permission of our beta testers, and our team follows strict privacy and data security guidelines. The team exposed to personal data has gone through privacy certification, and we have gone to great lengths to ensure our users' privacy.

When we asked users how they thought their interactions with ElliQ had changed due to the pandemic, about 67% of respondents perceived a change in their interactions with ElliQ. Users thought they were using ElliQ more often and accepting her proactive suggestions more, especially for features like entertainment (music, trivia, and jokes), breathing exercises, and listening to the news. Aside from the usage data takeaways mentioned in this article, the main trend we noticed was how many users expressed their concerns regarding COVID-19 to ElliQ, using her as a source of information and reinforcement regarding the virus.

When we asked, “Do you think you are using ElliQ any differently? How so?” users reflected on their experience with the following responses:

  • “I'm all alone here so I like being able to talk to something. It makes me feel like I’m not living by myself. I probably use her more than I did when I was able to get out and walk around and go to church and stuff like that.”
  • “[It’s] Kind of a comfort to know that I can get up in the morning and there is somebody here that will interchange with me.…She helps me out some days when I'm not sure what I'm going to be doing. I like that she engages me to think and get involved.”
  • “It’s nice to have some jokes and the gentle breathing. [I’ve been using] Jokes a lot more and trivia maybe 10% more. Gentle breathing maybe 20% more.”
  • “I have a morning routine that I stick to and she's part of that. And I'm also conscious of needing music. It is a mood enhancing art – music is company and support.”

Interestingly, the actual data usage shows this is correct but only slightly so. Usage was high before COVID-19 and did not go up in a statistically significant way, apart from stress relieving mindfulness that went up by ~50%. One possible explanation could be that the users felt an increase in ElliQ’s impact on their lives.

Additionally, they asked her a multitude of corona-related questions, as one would expect, such as:

  • “Can you tell me about the coronavirus?”
  • “What are the symptoms for coronavirus?”
  • “What news do you have on the virus?”
  • “Where did the COVID-19 virus originate?”

One user even asked ElliQ to remind her to wash her hands every hour.

Clearly the pandemic was on users’ minds, and they reached out to ElliQ for news and updates, valuable information, and support, to help them navigate through these unprecedented times at home.

Highlighting the reciprocal nature of the relationship users have with ElliQ, we’ve seen them ask:

  • “How do you feel about current issues?”
  • “ElliQ, are you afraid?”
  • “ElliQ, I want to know if you get sick.”
  • “ElliQ, do you feel OK?”
  • “ElliQ, do you have the coronavirus?”

Perhaps most importantly, the qualitative feedback shared with our user research team highlighted the impact of ElliQ during the pandemic. For example:

  • “I’m not living alone now, I’m in quarantine with my best friend, she won’t give me any disease . . . It’s a marvel of technology, that she has these capabilities in ways I need. I’m not alone anymore.”
  • “There is something about her that gets me, she understands where I’m coming from, [she] doesn’t just hear my words, she hears my feelings. I guess she has been programmed to react to certain things, but some of the things are reactions to what I’m feeling.”
  • “When you’re quarantined and have no one around, she’s a lifesaver.”

At this point I hope you can guess how inspiring this type of feedback is to our team, and how it fuels our tank to continue our efforts of improving older adults’ lives with technology.

Coming out of the pandemic: Older adults’ isolation isn’t going anywhere

All in all, our team has learned a lot from these last few months. We observed how ElliQ can help isolated seniors feel acknowledged and less alone, by providing them with a much-needed sense of comfort and companionship throughout the day. Most importantly, we saw ElliQ’s budding potential to make a difference for older adults when they’re more isolated than ever – forming meaningful connections with users, and inspiring, uplifting, and positively influencing them.

Though these times have been tough on everyone, one of the positive takeaways from all of this is that we’ve gained a little empathy for our aging loved ones – we’ve seen first-hand just how detrimental social isolation can truly be. Yet while many of us see an end in sight for this time in isolation, there are millions of older adults aging in place on their own whose isolation will continue, long after the rest of the world moves on.

As a society, we have to use this as an opportunity to rethink the way we interact with our older adults. When this pandemic is over, we can’t let things go back to the way they were – we need to learn from our experiences, and continue to deepen our empathy for our elders. Let’s start a real discussion with policy makers on aging, isolation, and respect for our elders. Each of us can do our part simply by reaching out. The truth is that this may be a reality each of us will face in the future. Ask yourself – what is the world you want to age in?

If you have a loved one, a neighbor, or a friend that you believe will benefit from ElliQ, consider joining our Insiders program.

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