Simple conversations with bots are making a difference for elderly care patients. (Source: Advinia Healthcare)

‘Pepper’ Robot Trials, Zoom Show Promise for Patients

The separation that we have all been asked to go through during the pandemic is really causing problems across the board for people of all ages. Humans are not meant to be anti-social. And in particular, studies show older adults have a very hard time with the loneliness that constant separation is causing. In the United Kingdom, retirement homes are beginning to experiment with mental health robots interacting with residents.

Robots that can hold simple conversations and learn people’s interests are being deployed in some UK care homes after an international trial found they boosted mental health and reduced loneliness. The research program is being led by Chris Papadopoulos at the University of Bedfordshire. reported on the program, which breaks down how the bots are being used in research across England and Japan.

The wheeled robots, each called “Pepper,” move independently and gesture with robotic arms and hands and are designed to be “culturally competent,” which means that after some initial programming they learn about the interests and backgrounds of care home residents. This allows them to initiate conversations, play residents’ favorite music, teach them languages and offer practical help, including medicine reminders.

Researchers say the robots aren’t meant to replace human beings and interactions with medical staff, but to fill in some of the open time residents have due to Covid-19 restrictions. The trial, in the UK and Japan, found that older adults in care homes who interacted with the robots for up to 18 hours across two weeks had a significant improvement in their mental health. Advinia Healthcare, a trial location and one of the largest providers of dementia care in the UK, said it will use the bots for reducing anxiety and loneliness.

“This is the only artificial intelligence that can enable an open-ended communication with a robot and a vulnerable resident,” said Dr. Sanjeev Kanoria, the Advinia chairman. “Now we are working towards bringing the robot into routine care, so it can be of real help to older adults and their families.”

The initiative comes amid a continuing staffing crisis for UK care homes exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, during which more than 18,000 residents have died of confirmed or suspected Covid-19.

There have been questions brought up concerning the effect the robots would have on the employment of some medical workers. The research shows using robots allows health care workers to focus on more important areas of their work and gives them a break.

Before the outbreak, the care industry had at least 120,000 vacancies and the largest operators this week told MPs that staff are suffering “burnout”, and the strain is being increased by the financial difficulties many operators are facing after costs soared and occupancy levels fell.

“Vic Rayner, the executive director of the National Care Forum, which represents charitable care providers, said: ‘Robots in social care should not be seen as part of a frightening futuristic vision. They offer key additions to how care is delivered that need to be explored further and understood. Covid-19 has shown us that rather than being a sector that does not understand technology, it is, in fact, one that is ripe to explore how technology can improve efficiency, support data flow and enhance communication with families and loved ones.’ “

Tele-Health For Mental Health

Along with the mental health of the elderly being a concern, there’s equal concern for people with addictions and other mental health issues receiving counseling during the pandemic. Using the telephone and Zoom has helped to throw a lifeline for people in crisis.

Therapists and their clients nationwide have mostly found a routine to stay connected, according to a story on

Counselors are using videoconferences for one-on-one and groups meetings on Zoom. They are trying to provide continuity of therapy for people with HIV, those struggling with addiction, those suffering domestic violence—or all the above—to help keep the most vulnerable clients from crisis.

Samantha Arsenault, M.A., vice president of national treatment quality initiatives at Shatterproof, an addiction advocacy organization, says the COVID-19 shutdowns are a “perfect storm” for people receiving counseling, especially for those struggling with addictions.

“The transition [to video counseling] is not by choice,” she said. “It’s forced on patients. And when you have a vulnerable population, some with limited resources, limited data plans, there are challenges with the technology. And then you add maybe losing their income, maybe losing their parents [to COVID-19], this is the worst time to be scaling back any elements of a treatment plan.”

Counselors have to work to keep patients and victims engaged.

“But switching all patients to Zoom conferencing takes more than setting up the technology and telling patients to use it. All of the providers contacted for this story said that older patients were more reluctant to use technology as a replacement for in-person sessions. And if they are able and willing to use videoconferencing, there’s the issue of where to go for the session. For a person in an abusive relationship, or who simply wants some privacy, finding a safe place in a crowded apartment to do an hour of telehealth can be challenging.”

The issues of caring for humans by humans are complicated by the pandemic, but they aren’t impossible to address. AI and high tech solutions provide hope when some despair over getting through the isolation.

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