Senior citizens - adults 65 and older - will outnumber children in the United States for the first time by 2035, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.As their number increases, the demand for elder care is also growing.
For the past 12 years, SenCura has been providing non-medical in-home care for this segment of the population in Northern Virginia.Company founder Cliff Glier says its services "include things as bathing, dressing, companionship, meal planning and prep and transportation, pretty much everything in and around the home that seniors typically need help with.”
Hollie, one of SenCura’s professional caregivers, visits 88-year-old Olga Robertson every day for three hours.She cooks for her, takes her to appointments, plays some brain games with her and goes walking with her around the neighborhood or in the mall.
But when Hollie is not around, Robertson still has company: a robot named Rudy.“You can have a conversation with him,” Robertson says."He’s somebody you talk to and he responds.”
He also provides entertainment, telling her jokes, playing games and dancing with her.
In addition to keeping her mentally and physically engaged, Rudy provides access to emergency services around the clock, keeps track of misplaced items and reminds her about appointments and when it's time for her medicine.The robot stands a bit over a meter high, and has a digital screen embedded in its torso, for virtual check-ins with family and care-givers.
Robertson has actually introduced Rudy to her neighbors.“I kind of became famous in the neighborhood because of this robot.”
The caregiver who helps caregivers
Anthony Nunez is founder of INF Robotics, the startup that created Rudy.He says the idea behind the robotic caregiver was inspired by what his mother went through, when his grandmother got older and needed help.
“As I grew older, I realized we weren’t the only family facing this problem,” Nunez recalls.“There are thousands of families facing the same issue.Most cases are even worse where they have the loved one taking care of and the cost becomes an issue.So what we wanted to do was design a robot that’s easy to use, designed especially for seniors, but also affordable.”
Nunez says technology helps seniors age in place, well-taken care of.
“We’re leveraging the artificial intelligence within our platform to help seniors make better decisions, to allow them stay in their home,” he explains.“We’re also working on machine learning on a platform and some cognitive computing to identify patterns within the seniors’ daily habits that could lead to an adverse event, and identifying those ahead of time, then using our cloud computing on a platform to get that info to caregivers before something happens.”
Carla Rodriguez has been working with Nunez’s company since it was founded.She says Rudy’s simple design makes it easy to use.The company also consults their potential customers to decide which features they need most in a robotic caregiver.
“We always have seniors involved and every time we had some type of communication we would introduce it,” she says.“Seniors would give us their feedback, 'We don’t like this, we don’t like that,' we come in and change it.”
Cooperation vs. competition
SenCura’s Cliff Glier met Nunez and his team at an event more than a year ago.He became interested in introducing Rudy to his customers.
“We are dealing with older adults that are typically 80, 90, 100 years old,” he says.“So this kind of technology is very new to them, so there will be some closer looks at it.People, I would say, would be interested once they learn more, we have the opportunity to show them Rudy and its capabilities.”
Rudy is not competition for human caregivers, Glier says.“He’s around to help out, where the caregivers typically would come in, may help with bathing or dressing, things at this point Rudy can’t do, but beyond that, Rudy simply fills the growing gap."
The robot supplements what in-home caregivers do for the growing population of seniors who prefer to age in place - with a little help from some friends.