For John and Susan Hassell of Stewart Manor, a walk around the neighborhood is a welcome escape from the challenges of life. Both in their 80s, they take along an unlikely companion on their stroll — a robotic bird. NewsdayTV's Steve Langford reports.  Credit: Newsday/Kendall Rodriguez

To address the human problem of loneliness in seniors, the state has turned to technology — specifically, artificial intelligence.

Since last year, more than 800 older New Yorkers, including 11 Long Islanders, have received small, white tablet-like devices from the state Office for the Aging. The technology, known as ElliQ, is intended to combat loneliness, which can be detrimental to seniors’ mental and physical health. And so far, it’s been successful: Users have experienced a 95% reduction in loneliness and a “great improvement in well-being,” the state said.

“It can be a game changer for older adults. We’re excited about the technology,” said Holly Rhodes-Teague, director of the Suffolk County Office for the Aging. “It can help people explore the world without getting out and stay connected with the world.”

Holly Rhodes-Teague, director of the Suffolk County Office for the...

Holly Rhodes-Teague, director of the Suffolk County Office for the Aging, with an ElliQ device. Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

ElliQ is just the latest example of technology, including animatronic pets, being used to help address senior loneliness. And while there is excitement about its possible benefits, concerns have also been raised about the privacy of users’ information, the potential for mistakes and the role humans play in the care of seniors.

    “It’s difficult to see how AI could fully replace human interaction,” said Marc Shulman, a clinical psychologist with Long Island Psychology, which specializes in senior care and has offices in Garden City, Rockville Centre and Roslyn Heights. “It can’t completely capture what an aging person needs.”

    ‘Epidemic’ of loneliness

    This past spring, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy released an advisory calling attention to the “epidemic” of loneliness and isolation in this country. And while anyone can feel isolated, seniors are at particular risk, according to the advisory.

    The University of Michigan’s 2023 national poll on healthy aging found that 1 in 3 adults aged 50 to 80 reported feeling isolated from others in the past year, and more than one in three felt a lack of companionship.

    Loneliness can pose serious health risks, affecting immune function and even shortening one’s lifespan, according to experts.

    “If you’re disconnected, you’re more likely to develop an illness you might otherwise have been able to fight off if you had high levels of connection,” said Dr. Richard Zweig, a geriatric psychologist and associate professor at Yeshiva University’s Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology in the Bronx.

    And for older women, the impact can be especially acute, according to Dr. Allison Marziliano, assistant professor in the Institute of Health System Science at the Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research at Northwell Health in Manhasset.

    “Social isolation leads to poorer cognitive functioning, lower rates of physician follow-up, re-hospitalization and incident heart failure among older women,” she said.

    Meet ElliQ

    Leslie Rosado-Butler, a caseworker with the Suffolk County Office for the Aging in Hauppauge, works with seniors struggling with isolation.

    This past spring, she turned to ElliQ to help one of her clients, a 90-year-old woman from Bay Shore who lives alone and whose family lives out of state.

    The device was provided for free through an ongoing pilot program begun last year by the state Office for the Aging in partnership with developer Intuition Robotics. (ElliQ can also be bought online for $249.99 plus a monthly or annual subscription fee.)

    ElliQ has a lamp-like “head” and a touch screen tablet, both attached to a single base. The head is equipped with a microphone and speakers and when it talks, it lights up and turns to face the person it is speaking to. The tablet is used for video calls, as well as to display pictures and other features.

    Internet access is required, and users can start the device on their own or with the help of a caregiver. Case managers like Rosado-Butler use a screening tool for social isolation to identify potential candidates.

    Rosado-Butler said the device has helped her client.

    “This is a big part of her life now, between the music, inspirational quotes, the balance-building exercises where she has a visual of the teacher doing moves, and real conversations,” said Rosado-Butler. “ElliQ says hello and calls her by name, asks how she is doing and engages with her. ElliQ has learned her personality, and will ask her, ‘Are you going to have your coffee now?’ ”

    She added, “ElliQ will read books to you and play a game with you. She loves it. It keeps her company.”

    According to Roger Noyes, director of public information for the state Office for the Aging, participants in the pilot program are interacting with ElliQ more than 30 times a day, six days a week, on average. More than 75% of these interactions are related to improving the older adults’ social, physical and mental well-being, he said.

    “ElliQ is proactive,” he said. “It initiates conversations, which makes it a very powerful companion tool.”

    And, he added, “ElliQ recalls prior conversations, creating important connections over time that can help older adults.”

    For instance, Noyes said, if a user tells ElliQ that they have had trouble sleeping and are experiencing back pain or other discomfort, the device may ask about the problem at another time and offer to contact a family member for follow-up.

    ElliQ also suggests activities and encourages users to set and achieve goals. It can virtually take users to museum exhibits and on road trips and offers mindfulness exercises led by certified instructors, said Noyes.

    “ElliQ encourages personal connections by reminding users about important appointments and opportunities to contact loved ones. It also offers an app that allows family, caregivers or other loved ones to video call, text, share photos and check in,” said Noyes.

    Not for everyone

    Despite its promising early results, experts warn that ElliQ is not a magic bullet.

    Rosado-Butler said she tried the device with another client but ultimately removed it, as the man had cognitive issues that made him a less than ideal candidate.

    “If a person has problems hearing, doesn’t have a certain level of cognizance, or strong internet connection, ElliQ may be challenging,” said Rosado-Butler.

    There are other concerns as well.

    “What jumped out to me with ElliQ is that there is no intervention,” said Robyn Berger-Gaston, division director of the Family Service League, a social service agency in Riverhead. “What if a user is so despondent, they feel suicidal and communicates that to the device? Seniors are a vulnerable population, and right now the device isn’t linked to their physician, so you can’t completely rely on ElliQ.”

    Privacy is an issue, as the device stores seniors’ personal information. And, said Dr. Heather Sandison, a California brain health specialist with expertise in Alzheimer’s disease and related dementia, there is also the possibility of errors.

    “If a medication is misidentified or health data is incorrect or misreported, this could be life-threatening,” she said.

    Said Noyes, “Far from a replacement for human interaction, our work with ElliQ encourages connections to traditional supports when an older adult expresses a concern or need. ElliQ recommends and offers to facilitate calls to family or other trusted individuals identified and opted by the user, including Offices for the Aging case managers.”

    He noted, however, “All such communications are user-directed. While ElliQ might recommend calling a trusted contact when a user expresses a need or concern, it’s the user’s decision about whether to do so.”

    As for concerns about user information, he pointed to Intuition Robotics’ privacy policy, which states, “We employ industry standard procedures and policies to ensure the safety of [users’] information, reduce the risks stemming from loss of information and prevent unauthorized use of any such information. However, we do not and cannot guarantee that unauthorized access will never occur and reiterate that no measure can provide absolute information security.”

    Asked whether the pilot program might be expanded, Noyes said state officials are still “collecting data on outcomes so that we have a long-term view of the program’s efficacy over time. From there we can determine next steps for future programming.”

    If it is expanded, Noyes said the devices would continue to be provided free of charge.

    Animatronic pets

    ElliQ isn’t the first time the state Office for the Aging has used technology to address senior loneliness.

    In 2018, the state started a pilot program offering animatronic pets to seniors. Robotic cats and dogs, for example, cock their head, meow and bark. The pets have touch sensors and heartbeat simulators and behave like their real-life kin, whimpering for attention, wagging a tail when happy, or purring and stretching to signal a desire for a belly rub.

    More than 24,000 animatronic pets have gone to socially isolated seniors. The state found a reduction in loneliness among 70% of participants in one year, said Noyes.

    And then there is Bootsy, a robotic bird recently given to Susan and John Hassell of Stewart Manor by Long Island Alzheimer’s & Dementia Center in Westbury.

    John Hassell and his wife, Susan Hassell, on a walk...

    John Hassell and his wife, Susan Hassell, on a walk with his robotic bird, Bootsy. Credit: Danielle Silverman

    John, who has Alzheimer’s disease, is a client at the center. In just a few months, Bootsy has made a difference in her husband’s well-being, Susan Hassell said.

    “I turn Bootsy on, and it makes John smile,” she said.

    The couple, who are in their 80s, often take the bird with them during daily walks. Bootsy sits on John Hassell’s walker and chirps songs like “Rockin’ Robin.”

    “It’s good company,” his wife said. “Bootsy lifts his mood. It’s a cute little thing.”

    Resources for older adults

    As seniors age, their circle can get smaller as friends and family move or pass away. They may also not be able to get out like they used to. Staying connected is critical for mental and physical health, however. Here are some tips from Robyn Berger-Gaston, division director of the Family Service League in Riverhead, to help you, or an aging loved one, deter isolation:

    • Find out what your township offers. Each one has something for seniors. Contact your county’s department of aging for referrals and resources for classes, adult day care programs and other services. Nassau County’s Office for the Aging can be reached at 516-227-8900 or via their website.The Suffolk County Office for the Aging can be reached at 631-853-8200 or suffolkcountyny.gov/aging.
    • Another good resource is the local library. "Get on the mailing list to get information about events. Even if you can’t go in person, you can attend via Zoom. You might be able to get home delivery of books. The library is the best-kept secret."
    • Houses of worship may be able to connect you to a prayer group or offer volunteer opportunities for you to meet people. Some may also have members who make home visits to seniors.

    — Sheryl Nance-Nash

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