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OhmniLabs Blog

Telepresence Is the Loneliness Solution Our Seniors Need

[fa icon="clock-o"] Dec 5, 2016 10:24:02 AM [fa icon="user"] Tingxi Tan [fa icon="folder-open'] loneliness


Taking Homecare into the Future, from Helplines and Caregivers to Robots

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In a New York Times article that came out September this year, author Katie Hafner writes about older adults who are experiencing loneliness at significantly higher levels. The article is titled “Researchers Confront an Epidemic of Loneliness”-- and the choice of the word “epidemic” is especially appropriate. Hafner compiles anecdotes and research that illustrate an aspect of loneliness that we as a society tend to ignore-- its very real physical effects. She quotes Dr. John T. Cacioppo, a psychology professor at the University of Chicago, who says, “Denying you feel lonely makes no more sense than denying you feel hunger.” Apart from its self-evident mental and psychological aspects, chronic loneliness is associated with such physical ramnifications as increased levels of cortisol, a major stress hormone, and higher vascular resistance, which can raise blood pressure and decrease blood flow to vital organs. It’s becoming more apparent that loneliness doesn’t just hurt emotionally-- it hurts physically, too (though these distinctions are somewhat facetious-- anyone who’s feeling lonely can tell you they don’t feel well).  

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So what does this mean for our elders, the majority of whom, in the US at least, live alone? Among the biggest fears that elders face are loss of independence, inability to live at home, and loneliness. This means that any caregiving strategy must address not only an elder’s safety and well-being, but also their emotional concerns (which we are increasingly learning have a pronounced effect on their physical well-being). Telepresence might have something unique and crucial to offer in this arena. As a tool that effectively combines convenience and care, telepresence can provide human connection with the ease of a Skype session, and for a fraction of the cost of a traditional caregiver scenario.

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It is inevitable that a senior living independently, separate from their family and maybe even suffering from limited mobility, will face loneliness. As mentioned in the article, the Silver Line Helpline provides a service for seniors who call for advice, assistance, and friendship. Many older adults, isolated and living alone, will call simply for the opportunity to talk to someone. While a phone call can do a lot to provide connection, and Silver Line and other such helplines provide a valuable and much-needed service, there is no substitute for the warmth that comes from a conversation with a loved one. If a phone conversation with a stranger can work short-term wonders to ease loneliness, then how much more valuable would it be for seniors to be able to see a familiar face and hear a familiar voice?A telepresence robot can help bridge the loneliness gap by connecting elders and their loved ones, with the added benefit of being able to meet the elder wherever they are. This is especially helpful in situations where the older adult might have difficulty getting around. A family member can direct the robot through remote steering to meet Grandpa where he is, so that Grandpa doesn’t have to move at all.

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This can offer peace of mind, too-- Grandpa knows that if he takes a fall, his daughter Katie will be able to see what’s happened as soon as she calls through the robot to check in on him. Katie, meanwhile, knows that she can call every week-- or every morning if she needs to-- and see how Grandpa’s doing. If he doesn’t answer her call, she doesn’t have to worry about what might have happened; she can go directly to him and see for herself if she needs to call for help. With the telepresence robot, Grandpa has the ability to see as well as hear family members, and he has increased agency over his ability to connect with loved ones. Katie gets the security of knowing that he’s okay, and she gets to do it on her own time-- without the travel costs.

The most exciting thing about the telepresence robot, though, just might be the opportunity that Katie now has to take Grandpa out with her to family gatherings, to his grandson’s birthday party, or even out to a museum or a park. All Katie needs is a screen and a signal, and Grandpa can be transported to right where she is. So even though it might be hard for him to get out and experience new things, he doesn’t have to stop enjoying life. He won’t feel left out of family activities, and he’ll get to see his grandchildren grow every step of the way-- not just on the days when the family can make the trip to Grandpa’s house.

As far as price point, the telepresence robot is another boon for Katie, especially if Grandpa starts needing a daily check-in. A traditional caregiver who travels to Grandpa’s house to check in in-person might cost Katie $5,000 a month. The technology of telepresence, however, opens up avenues for less expensive care solutions. Even if Katie is unable to pay for an in-person caregiver, she still has access to more affordable options with telepresence. She might choose to make the investment in a telepresence robot herself and take the time to check in on Grandpa as needed. She might also choose to go through a homecare agency that is able to offer a less expensive package through the effective use of a telepresence robot.

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As it becomes more apparent that fighting loneliness is a crucial component of an elder’s well-being, our innovations in technology must address that aspect as part of our caregiving solutions. This is why we at OmniLabs are especially excited to partner with Home Care Assistance (HCA), the nation’s largest provider of in-home care, to pilot test new robots that will give family members a way to connect with their seniors in a way that has never been done before. This pilot program is open to seniors in the Bay Area. It offers an exciting, innovative, and engaging way for families to combat senior isolation together.

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We believe in integrating the physical and emotional to provide the most effective care for our loved ones, and we have developed robots to do just that. Through the video chat capabilities of the telepresence robot, families gain utility and convenience while staying completely connected. Just because our elders live independently doesn’t mean they have to be isolated. With the help of the telepresence robot, we can keep in touch and take care of our loved ones better than ever.

You might also be interested in our latest blog --> Introduction to Senior Home Safety and Comfort (Free guide download) 

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