The number of adults reaching retirement age in the United States is climbing yearly. In 2019, adults aged 65 and older represented 16% of the population, totaling more than 54 million.
While many of these adults are still living independently, a growing number is aging in place alone. To combat the ever-increasing number of isolated seniors, New York is turning to an unlikely ally — artificial intelligence.
The Dangers of Senior Isolation
It’s not uncommon to see older adults spending most of their time alone. Perhaps their spouse has passed on, or their children are grown and living their own lives. However, there might be a more dangerous problem for mostly solitary seniors.
Adults over the age of 65 are more likely to be socially isolated due to things like the loss of friends or family members, hearing loss, or chronic illness. Studies show prolonged social isolation can increase an individual’s risk of:
- Premature death from all causes.
- Dementia (50% increased risk).
- Heart disease (29% increased risk).
- Stroke (32% increased risk).
- Depression and anxiety.
- Suicidal thoughts and ideations.
- Hospitalization (68% increased risk).
- Emergency room visits (57% increased risk).
- Heart failure (four times higher risk of death).
The risks are often even higher among seniors belonging to the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color), AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander), and LGBT+ communities. With an AI companion, the aging population could start feeling less alone.
Isolation Throughout the Pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic changed the way many people lived their lives. Elderly individuals who would typically have maintained vibrant social lives were forced into isolation because they carried some of the highest risks.
Before the pandemic, about one-quarter of seniors lived in various social isolation. Two years in, that number jumped to 56%.
At the height of COVID-19, many assisted living facilities and nursing homes shut their doors to everyone except staff to prevent the virus from infecting their vulnerable residents. Many people who used to get regular visitors found themselves facing isolation because visitation wasn’t safe.
The Rise of Aging in Place
As more adults reach retirement age, many are making plans for their golden years. A decade or two ago, if a senior couldn’t live safely on their own, there were two options — living with an adult child or taking up residence in a nursing home or assisted living facility.
With the advent of smart home technology, there is a third option — aging in place.
Instead of leaving a house they’ve likely spent decades in, aging in place allows seniors to remain in the comfort of their own home, maintaining their independence while making necessary changes to ensure they can stay safe.
Research shows that around 70% of seniors already opt for home modifications as they age. Making a few more changes to allow them to age in place — like introducing AI — is the next obvious step in this transition.
The Introduction of ElliQ
ElliQ is the first in what might be a long line of AI-powered robotic companions for seniors. The New York State Office for the Aging is pairing with Intuition Robotics to provide 800 sensors with an ElliQ system for their homes.
This robot can use voice commands and visual emotive gestures to help the user send messages, place video calls, and more. It has also become a valuable tool for scheduling appointments and can even be used to set up medication reminders.
Designers describe ElliQ as a “proactive and empathetic” AI that can initiate conversations, suggest activities, and even play games with its users. Care-based AI and robotics are still in their infancy.
Still, other examples — such as the Care-O-Bot, which has been used in Germany to provide healthcare and companionship for seniors — are not as inexpensive as ElliQ. The desktop system costs 30 monthly subscription.
An Ethical Question
AI-powered companions might seem like the perfect solution to help provide cognitive stimulation and prevent social isolation for seniors. But, not everyone is a fan of the technology.
One group of scientists questioned the ethics of utilizing these tools — especially considering they are human-driven and not true AI companions as companies often advertise them.
These false promises may deceive seniors and older adults into believing they have a personal relationship with their AI companion. It is also possible that patients could be monitored without their consent if the information collected by these artificial companions falls into the wrong hands.
There is even the potential that an attachment to an AI companion could reduce an individual’s opportunities for social interaction with other human beings. It isn’t the perfect solution, but when used in moderation and carefully monitored, these AI systems could help fill the growing gap and prevent dangerous social isolation.
Using AI Robots like ElliQ to Age Gracefully
It’s the right of every human being to age gracefully and comfortably regardless of where they decide to spend their golden years. If the ElliQ experiment proves successful, it could help ensure older adults enjoy their best years without succumbing to the effects of social isolation.