Let Me Help You During this Time: Remote Interactions with Socially Assistive Robots by Older Adults During Pandemic Times
The COVID‑19 pandemic has gravely impacted the health, well-being and safety of older Canadians. Socially assistive robots (SARs) can be used to help mitigate the effects of the pandemic including loneliness and isolation, and to alleviate the workload of both formal/informal caregivers. Our research program develops intelligent SARs to aid with activities of daily living and cognitive interventions for residents of long-term care (LTC), including those living with dementia. With the advent of the pandemic, opportunities for social relationships, especially for older adults, have decreased substantially. Social isolation and loneliness have spiked, representing a major determinant of health, including increased risk of premature death. The prevalence of loneliness among older adults living in LTC is double that of those living in communities. During the pandemic, to meet public health guidelines, residents have been isolated from visitors/family, and group activities and communal dining have halted. These restrictions included our researchers and others conducting crucial human-robot interaction (HRI) studies with robots and vulnerable residents in LTC settings. Assistive HRI research is complex and requires obtaining needed training data for SAR development. In particular, large datasets are needed for robot learning during HRI in order to 1) perceive human activity and 2) respond appropriately using multi-modal assistive behaviours. The global pandemic offers a unique opportunity to design new HRI Research Methodologies and Pilot Studies to train and implement these novel intelligent robots, especially during this pivotal time. As we no longer can obtain crucial face-to-face interaction data in real settings; the proposed research aims to develop unique remote capabilities for SARs (residents and robots physically remote from each other but still interacting) to continue to engage seniors in daily stimulating interactions while learning to personalize assistive behaviours from their intended users. We see lasting impacts of this novel research methodology: 1) continued development of robot aids for our vulnerable population, bringing the technology forward without delay, and 2) sustained interactions of residents with SARs during the ongoing pandemic to combat loneliness/social-isolation, and improve physical/cognitive health. This research will uniquely investigate the efficacy of remote HRI and its potential to reach more LTC homes than ever before.