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Can a robot roommate help you care for your aging parent?

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By Jeanette Beebe

This article is reprinted by permission from  .

One of the most emotionally laden and difficult conversations a family can have involves what to do when an older relative can no longer live independently — at least not fully. Most of us want to keep our independence for as long as possible, while loved ones may be concerned about our ability to manage it safely.

These days, though, technology can make living alone safer. It serves as a bridge, a way out of the house, connecting to experts at the other side who are there to help. It also provides older adults with cyberpets and “cyber sidekicks” that battle loneliness without needing to be bathed or fed. The New York State Department of Aging was impressed enough by these devices that it  announced  it would start distributing them to older adults who are most in need.

In addition to combating loneliness, these gadgets can save lives. “For several days, I was getting weaker and weaker,” says Bonita Hoyle, an 86-year-old grandmother in New Mexico. “One night, I woke up at 3:30 a.m. and thought, ‘That’s enough of this.’ I said, ‘Alexa, call for help.’”

Saying these words prompted the system to connect her to the company’s emergency dispatch team, which led to an extended hospital stay. She is now back at home, feeling better. She believes the technology — it’s called a Companion — saved her life.

Related : Seniors head back to retirement communities as COVID lingers–‘I just didn’t want to be alone’

You choose who to call if you need help

The Alexa-enabled medical alert system, one of several technology products designed to assist solo agers, is operated by  SmartCompanion Care , a new company that is affiliated with Veterans Home Care. That service has helped over 20,000 veterans and their surviving spouses access their VA Aid and Attendance benefits to receive in-home and other care with no out-of-pocket cost. The company developed the technology for veterans and their families — and it’s free, under a certain veterans benefit — but now, any older adult or disabled person can buy it.

SmartCompanion costs $250 to set up, which covers the cost of installing and programming all of the hardware — typically a smart router with battery backup, Echo Show video screen with battery backup and several Echo Dot smart speakers. Other companies offer robotic cats ($124.99), dogs ($139.99) and now birds ($64.99).

David Laiderman, CEO of Veterans Home Care and SmartCompanion Care LLC, said his product connects to his firm’s urgent-response team. “The Companion is customized for each individual and preprogrammed for a simple set up,” he says. “Seniors can say, ‘Call my son,’ for a video or audio call. Alexa devices bought off the shelf are not preprogrammed to dial 911 for emergencies.”

Also see: The next SECURE Act: These proposals are supposed to help solve the retirement crisis, but what’s missing?

Unlike other options that work with a push of a button, the VetAssist Companion works only with your voice: you can tell it to call someone, and it dials the number for you. It works for video calls, too. Since it works with Alexa, you can also use it for dozens of other tasks, from reminding you to take your pills to listening to the news to playing games. With Alexa, if you say something in the right way, it happens.

Hoyle says she also uses the Alexa-enabled device for routine tasks, including as a timer. “It’s wonderful to me to be able to speak and get a response,” she says. “I have macular degeneration, so I don’t see well. I don’t dare put anything on the stove without a timer.”

“We knew it was time to re-imagine senior care,” Laiderman says. “The launch of our VetAssist Companion was already in motion to address pre-pandemic caregiver shortages and rising costs. Caregiver shortages are linked to costs and predicted to worsen. […] We stepped up our technology development to reduce isolation and loneliness among homebound seniors during the COVID pandemic.”

Addressing forecasts of a caregiver shortage

Paul Osterman, a professor of human resources and management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management, recently  concluded  that by 2030 there will be a national shortage of 151,000 paid caregivers and 3.8 million unpaid family caregivers. A decade later, the gap will grow to 355,000 paid workers and 11 million family caregivers.

Evelyn Chernetz, who lives in a senior community in Florida, also finds technology helpful, especially when it gives her alerts. “It reminds me to do so many things I wouldn’t remember to do otherwise,” she says, adding that when her daughters check in on her, they are “pleasantly surprised” with how quickly she moves through her to-do list now.

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