For the many senior adults who live by themselves—12 million in the United States alone—a new robot companion is on the way. The smart, connected GiraffPlus system consists of a robot plugged into the Internet, and a series of integrated sensors. It can notify caregivers of potentially urgent situations like falls, inform physicians of behavioral and physiological changes that could signal a need for new or modified medical treatment, and help seniors maintain social connections.
The Giraff robot has a screen for video calls with family, friends and health-care providers. When not in use, Giraff positions itself screen-to-the-wall to protect privacy. Normally resident at its docking station, the robot can be moved around the home by a caregiver connected to it over the Internet. A remote control enables seniors to make or receive calls when they’re in a different room than the Giraff.
Sensors placed along ceilings capture motion to help determine where the senior is inside the home and whether there’s healthy movement, while sensors under the mattress measure pressure to estimate how much sleep he or she is getting. Other sensors alert caregivers to possible falls, indicate the use of household appliances, and signal if a door or window is open.
In addition, various medical devices can work with GiraffPlus to relay physiological data, including glucose, blood pressure and level of oxygen in the blood, to a health-care team. The developers are currently working on a mechanism that allows “profiles” or combinations of parameters that classify users with respect to different health indicators.
“Based on these indicators,” says Gabriella Cortellessa, a research scientist at Italy’s National Research Council and technical manager for the GiraffPlus project, “the system can send alarms to designated secondary users, who can easily judge if they need to urgently intervene.”
The GiraffPlus system has already been piloted in six homes—two each in Sweden, Spain and Italy—and will be installed in nine more homes by the end of 2014. Feedback from the initial testers will be used to improve both the usability and usefulness of the system. “At the beginning, some of [the testers] expressed concerns on privacy,” Cortellessa says, “but that was overcome after a period of use. The majority of users claim they feel safer having the GiraffPlus in their home, and they see the GiraffPlus as a help in allowing them to be independent at home longer.”
Ninety-four-year-old Lea Mina Ralli has been piloting GiraffPlus in her home in Italy, and has written about the experience on her blog: “It gives me comfort because my children live far away. And I live alone out of personal choice. Now that this robot lives with me, I feel safer… I’m more relaxed about the years ahead, and so are my children and grandchildren.”
Cortellessa says that family members have been most interested in receiving alarms and warnings to indicate potential problems or emergencies. “The medical doctors,” she says, “appreciate the possibility to monitor different persons remotely, optimizing the real visits and also better managing false alarms.”
The development team is still working to add functionality, including enabling the robot to verbalize text messages sent by secondary users, adding more sensors (particularly physiological ones), and providing a space on the robot where seniors can see their own physiological data, making it easier for them to discuss their health with doctors and family members.
One important feature of the system will take more time to test: its activity-recognition module, which uses artificial intelligence to make inferences about activities based on data from environmental and physiological sensors. “A deviation from the normal routine could be a sign of a change in the health of the person,” Cortellessa says. “Early discovery of signs of health deterioration could be a good way to perform disease prevention and early intervention.”
In addition to offering benefits to seniors and their families, systems like GiraffPlus could help to address the expected shortage of home-care workers by enabling a small team of caregivers to better support a large number of seniors.
The system is being developed by a consortium of research centers, national health agencies and industrial partners in Sweden, Spain and Italy. Its development is being funded by the European Union, which is keen to address the coming challenge of Europe’s aging population. Within a decade, the EU predicts that Europe will need to care for an estimated 84 million people with age-related health problems. And they’ll have to do it with only two people of working age for every one person older than 65.
In the U.S., the Department of Health and Human Services projects that between 2012 and 2040 the population 65 and older will increase 85 percent to 79.7 million. As the population ages, there will be a corresponding increase in the number of people requiring assistance at home. Employment opportunities for personal-care and personal-health aides are projected to grow by nearly 50 percent from 2012 to 2022, significantly faster than the 11 percent average for most occupations. But with a median wage of $10/hour, many of these jobs are expected to go unfilled.
One of the project’s industrial partners, Giraff Technologies AB, leads the work on commercialization and is currently seeking investor funding. Assuming that funding is obtained, the system is planned for commercial production in 2015. Though pricing has not been set yet, it’s expected that there will be an up-front fee of less than $1,350 for the hardware, installation and configuration required to establish service in a home, plus a monthly subscription fee of less than $670 for ongoing service.
Given that most people 65 years or older have at least one chronic condition that requires medical monitoring and medication, systems like the GiraffPlus could actually reduce care costs for seniors.
“Customers considering the service weigh two value propositions: maintaining or improving quality of life for elderly users, and cost savings by replacing or avoiding expected care costs without the service,” says Stephen Von Rump, CEO of Giraff Technologies AB. He points out that the system has the potential to pay for itself. For example, by improving biometric monitoring and supporting better medication and physical therapy adherence, GiraffPlus is expected to reduce hospitalizations.
“Likewise,” Von Rump says, “if the service allows an elderly person to continue living at home when they would otherwise have to move to a 24-hour staffed facility, the savings would be thousands of Euros per month.”
Photo credit: Terése Andersson