Conversations with Alexa: How robots are helping Canada’s aging population connect – National
This is the final story of a four-part series examining how automation will change Canadians’ lives, for better or worse.
At 100 years old, Madeleine Séguin’s social life is not slowing down.
The tenant of Ottawa’s Bruyère Village has a busy social calendar that fills up quickly between dinners with her family and neighbours in the senior living community.
But Séguin recently made another new friend that’s helped the centenarian keep her agenda organized: Amazon’s Alexa.
Alexa, are you listening? What to know about the robots in your home
Alexa, are you listening? What to know about the robots in your home
Séguin shares with Global News that there’s an ease to co-ordinating her schedule of activities at Bruyère with Alexa, who remembers her friends’ and family members’ phone numbers.
Rather than looking up contact one at a time, she can just ask Alexa to place the calls for her — something she says came in handy recently when she found herself double booked for a lunch.
“I’m very surprised, you know, that I have just to say, ‘Alexa’ — and there she is. And she answers everything,” Séguin tells Global News. “I really appreciate that.”
Alexa moved in with Séguin and a few other tenants earlier in December as part of a pilot project with Amazon, marking the first deployment of the Alexa Smart Properties solution at a senior living community in Canada.
Louise Collins-Tassé, another Bruyère tenant who joined the program, says she’s been finding Alexa “delightful” so far.
More than just the practical uses of the technology, Collins-Tassé says there’s an emotional spark to conversations with the digital voice.
One of her favourite interactions with her new robotic friend is a very human one: telling Alexa, “I love you,” which prompts the voice assistant to begin a song in response.
“It’s really cute. She just tells you how much she loves you,” Collins-Tassé says with a smile.
Robotics and senior care specialists say there’s a real enthusiasm for more technology like this inside residences like Bruyère after years of labour and other health-care disruptions due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Robots could not only be the physical companions needed to keep an aging population healthy and engaged but some experts say they could also be the social connection that many older adults have been craving after years of isolation.
Keeping older Canadians connected
The Alexa pilot at Bruyère is made possible through a partnership between Amazon and Connected Canadians, a national non-profit that provides technology training and support to older adults.
CEO and co-founder Emily Jones Joanisse says the organization’s ethos is a belief that as the population ages, there should be a deliberate effort to keep older Canadians in the loop in the same way coding and computer science classes are often thrust upon youth.
“Digital skills are extremely important for our younger populations, of course, but nobody is paying attention to older adults,” Jones Joanisse tells Global News, citing “societal ageism” as one of the barriers keeping older adults from embracing the latest tech.
The pilot project at Bruyère will see between 50 and 100 devices with Alexa installed in tenants’ homes, depending on how many people opt into the roughly six-month program.
While they resemble the kinds of Echo smart speakers that are increasingly common in Canadian homes, these particular devices have screens for video calls and a few distinct privacy settings. Alexa can be programmed with a few basic pieces of information but won’t record anything the tenants say to analyze speech, Jones Joanisse says.
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The devices can be programmed to automate some of the jobs previously done manually by caretakers at the home, such as knocking on doors before meal times or bingo sessions starting in the hall.
Alexa can also host her own group games, with Collins-Tassé noting that regular trivia sessions are a popular use among her friends.
‘Intuitive’ communication key to using tech
The ability to summon Alexa with just a word is “incredibly valuable” for older adults who might struggle with manual dexterity or vision impairment, Jones Joanisse says.
Goldie Nejat, Canada Research Chair for robots in society at the University of Toronto, says the conversational element of advanced AI has been a game-changer for digital literacy.
“They’re more intuitive because they communicate the same way as we do,” she says of smart assistants.
Like the pilot at Bruyère, Nejat’s research team has experimented with the potential of automation in senior care homes around the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).
But unlike Alexa, her team deploys human-like robots with transforming facial features to match vocal intonation — smiling and laughing like any other visitor to the home.
The robots can take over a variety of duties, including calling out bingo numbers, leading one-on-one or group exercise sessions, or finding a resident whose family has called and bringing them up on a screen embedded in the chest area.
Nejat highlights one of the most practical uses for the robot is not just reminding residents about meal times, but actually engaging in the social act of “dining” with them. Machines can prompt residents who have cognitive impairments about the next steps in dining with social cues and physical movements, she says.
“There’s all these kinds of different avenues, if you think about it, that we can support our older adults with providing that social, cognitive and physical assistance that they need,” she says.
If things are starting to sound a little uncanny valley — that eerie feeling when something is not quite human but might behave in a way that resembles one — Nejat says that discomfort hasn’t been at the forefront for residents interacting with the robots.
In fact, she says it’s been remarkable to see people treat the robot like just another dinner guest — asking how the mechanical mate likes their own food or commenting on the delicious smells on the table.
Like Séguin and Collins-Tassé laughing with Alexa, Nejat says her team has observed a genuine enjoyment in conversing with the robots.
“They’re really eager to interact with the technology. We’ve measured their attitudes, their perceptions, and they’ve all been positive,” she says.
An ‘absolute necessity’ in the pandemic
Nejat, who’s been studying the social impact of robotics for two decades now, says there was an “automation push” in elder-care settings before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, but the past few years have served to crystalize the potential of robotics in this space.
Vulnerable populations living in care homes have been more at risk of contracting and dying from COVID-19 infections, which led to strict isolation policies in most jurisdictions before vaccines were developed and made widely available.
Heartbreaking stories of seniors’ disconnect and isolation surfaced from care homes during the height of the pandemic. In Michigan, a woman who contracted COVID-19 early in the pandemic while living in a nursing home reportedly asked Alexa for help, telling the robotic assistant she was “in pain,” before her death a few days later.
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As part of the Bruyère pilot, while the Echo device can’t dial 911 or call emergency services directly, tenants can have Alexa notify a staff member or be put directly through to a personal emergency contact.
Throughout the pandemic, Connected Canadians has stepped in to help older adults transition to telehealth services as health care shifted from in-person to online. Suddenly, tech savviness went from a nice-to-have to a lifeline for many Canadians, Jones Joanisse says.
“We believe digital literacy is a human right, but that only became more and more true and more clear over the pandemic. We believe it is an absolute necessity,” she says.
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The weight of the pandemic is also clear on the shoulders of caregivers and on the health-care workforce more broadly, which has strained to the point of collapse in recent years.
Ontario’s long-term care homes started 2022 with as much as 30 per cent of staff off work. In addition to COVID-19-related illness, the stress and lack of supports in the workplace after years of grinding through the pandemic were flagged as major contributors to the absences.
Robotic solutions are perfect for tasks that don’t require much thought or planning but that give structure to residents’ lives, Nejat says, such as regular reminders or placing calls to loved ones.
“They can do the same tasks over and over again. They can do it with a smile on their face,” she says.
There are also uses for robotics to help Canada’s older adults age in place, she adds, lessening the burden on care homes and keeping residents in their homes for longer.
In the past, robot case studies in elder-care settings have been limited to one or two days of research, but Nejat says she’s seen growing interest in longer-term projects — and a reluctance to give the robots back after their extended stays.
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Nejat imagines a not-too-distant future where fleets of robots can be deployed in care homes to interact with each other and residents, keeping the operations of the day running smoothly.
She adds, however, that a retirement residence or care home cannot, and should not, be run like a factory.
“Human interaction is still a critical component of care,” she says, noting that staff are better suited to make high-level planning decisions that robots are currently unable to do.
But Nejat argues a higher proportion of robot workers in residences could reduce staff burnout levels and thereby reduce turnover — something that’s highly disruptive to residents who grow accustomed to the same faces around the home each day.
Amazon reached out to add comment on the Bruyère pilot after this story was published.
Celine Lee, country manager for Amazon Canada, said in a statement that stories like those of the Bruyère tenants make her “proud” to be working on “accessible, intuitive” solutions for the aging population.
“This is one of those moments you know you can make a meaningful difference in someone else’s life,” she said.
While digital media has been critical to subsist through the pandemic, Jones Joanisse says having staff work with clients in-person and share knowledge across generations is “more palatable.”
While their means might be technological, she says Connected Canadians’ ends are more about the human touch than the robotic one.
“Our philosophy, our way of doing things, is very much associated with the human connection as well.”
— with files from Global News’ Anne Gaviola
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