It’s no secret that Americans are living longer, with many spending their later years in long-term care facilities like assisted-living centers or skilled nursing homes. Some of those residents, suffering from mild to severe dementia, lapse into an apathetic state, in which they refuse to participate in social or physical activities and shun interactions with other people. This can contribute to or exacerbate both mental and physical declines, leading to an early death.
To help residents suffering from apathy, researchers at Vanderbilt and Ohio State universities are creating “socially assistive” robots, funded by a $3.13 million grant from the National Institutes of Health. “We know a robot won’t replace an activities director or a therapist,” said Vanderbilt’s Nilanjan Sarkar, a professor of mechanical engineering and computer engineering. “We wanted to know if a robot can play the role of sparking social interaction among the residents. We want the robots to complement care they’re receiving.”
Unlike a caretaker or a family member, “a robot doesn’t get impatient or frustrated and walk away if a resident won’t participate in an activity,” says co-investigator Lorraine Mion, a geriatric expert in the College of Nursing at Ohio State. “It will just keep trying different ways to engage the person.”
According to guidance from The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, long-term care facilities must create an individualized activity plan for every resident—whether or not there are sufficient staff members to implement those plans. Mion thought a robot could fill gaps in staffing.
People in their late 70s and 80s, along with professionals from long-term care facilities, visited Sarkar’s lab at Vanderbilt to test whether the robots were easy to operate and how well they engaged with the participants. The final prototype, a chubby robot resembling the Michelin Tire man, helped participants play a computer game that involved wearing wristbands to move on-screen objects from a pile into a container. The robot moved its arms the way participants should and reminded them that working together would earn them more points.
Researchers then moved the robots into the long-term care facilities. “It turned out that robot-based interactions turned into people-to-people interactions,” Sarkar says. “If someone was playing a game with a robot, they would invite another person to join in.”
The coronavirus pandemic has indefinitely shuttered labs at both Vanderbilt and Ohio State. Sarkar and Mion don’t expect to return to long-term care facilities, which have vulnerable populations, until there’s a vaccine.
Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.