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Main Line Seniors Benefit From Technology and Robots

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Photo by Tessa Marie Images

Technology and robots add a helpful new dimension to senior care living facilities across the Main Line region.

According to the Census Bureau, those born between 1946 and 1964 will represent a sixth of the population by 2030. And boomers aren’t nearly as tech-shy as the generation before them. Ursula Siebeneich got involved with “room-sized mainframes” in the early 1980s. “They asked if I wanted to learn COBOL programming, and I said sure,” recalls the 73-year-old resident of White Horse Village in Newtown Square.

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Robbie the Robot works the kitchen at White Horse Village. Photo by Tessa Marie Images

To say that Siebeneich has no fear of technology would be an understatement—and she’s self-taught on most of it. “Five-year-olds can take STEM classes now,” she notes. “They can program circles around me.”

Currently on White Horse Village’s board of directors and its technology advisory committee, Siebeneich encourages her neighbors and peers to chat with family members on Zoom, get checkups via Telehealth, take virtual classes on AARP’s Senior Planet, and even enjoy a little Wii bowling—anything to get more comfortable with technology. “Most concerns center around whether their privacy is being invaded,” she says. “But continuing-care retirement communities like White Horse Village are looking very seriously at what kind of tech they can bring to seniors.”

There’s no sense fighting it. In fact, why not enjoy it? White Horse Village residents are taking it step further with artificial intelligence—technically a combination of hardware and software that makes decisions on what it offers a user. “AI isn’t just someone punching buttons and getting the same result each time,” says Seibeneich. “It learns and improves each time you use it. Google is the best AI out there, but even our personal phones learn and remember more each time you use them.”

At a time when many Gen Xers are bemoaning their offspring’s overreliance on personal devices, ElliQ is engaging their parents. This tabletop support device is designed to interact with seniors. “It’s like an Alexa, only it initiates conversations and activities,” says Siebeneich.

An animated desktop device created by Intuition Robotics out of Palo Alto, California, ElliQ has sensors that make the head move almost like a human’s as it makes suggestions for activities and interacts with users. The goal is to remind seniors to manage and improve their health and wellness. And if it relieves some boredom and loneliness along the way, all the better.

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Photo courtesy of Intuition Robotics

There’s also been some staffing help for White Horse Village’s dining services team. Robbie is a Servi robot conceived by Bear Robotics out of Redwood City, California, and nicknamed by White Horse Village residents. “Robbie helps us when we’re short-staffed,” says Chris Stewart, director of dining. “He’s a food runner.”

Essentially a high-tech waiter that delivers food from the kitchen to the table and returns with empty dishes, the Servi can carry an impressive 66 pounds on its three tiers. White Horse’s Steeplechase Dining Room was mapped into Robbie’s programming, so the robot can determine safe routes and navigate to specific locations without running into any humans. Weight sensors detect when a plate is removed, signaling him to return to the kitchen.

Robbie plays seasonal music as he softly whirrs around, delivering plates with a polite, “Please take your food” or “Enjoy your meal.” Any minor issues with the robot’s performance have been an easy fix with tech support over the phone. And since White Horse relies heavily on a high school wait staff, he can also serve cocktails. “He’s a novelty,” says Stewart. “Residents take pictures with him and had a contest to name him.”

Perhaps seniors will eventually be able to use self-driving cars to restore some independence? “Not in my lifetime. Maybe in another 20 years?” Siebeneich says. “But I’m a firm believer that AI will eventually become self-aware … like I, Robot.”

We’ll leave that to our kids to sort out.

Related: 4 Worthwhile Ways to Tackle Boredom From a Main Line Expert

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