Robots with iPads help B.C. long-term care residents connect with loved ones

A B.C. researcher is bringing video robots to long-term care homes, that allow residents to connect with their families without having to worry about operating the technology. Aaron McArthur reports.

After many months of an isolating pandemic, some long-term care residents in Metro Vancouver are reconnecting with loved ones with help from robots.

The devices, called “telepresence” robots, prop up iPads so residents can chat with friends and family virtually, without having to hold or operate the iPads themselves.

The idea, said UBC CHÉOS research associate Dr. Lillian Hung, is to provide a seamless communication experience for older adults — particularly those who have struggled with mobility, memory or technology during COVID-19.

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“During the pandemic, we hear families that they get 10 minutes a week,” explained Hung, who launched the three-year project.

“With technology they could connect and they don’t even get that 10 minutes — sometimes they were able to log on, but the iPad wasn’t facing the residents.”

Using the robots, family members can book a time slot, and using an app, drive the robot to the bedside of their loved one, or to their lunch table, and visit in real time.

When they’re done, the robot goes back to its charging station and the resident doesn’t have to do anything.

Right now, there are 10 prototype telepresence robots in four care homes in the Vancouver Coastal Health region. Hung and Jim Mann, study co-lead and patient partner, will observe their impact on social isolation over a three-year period.

Mann, an advocate for people with living with dementia, said the robots give older adults more independence and relieve some pressure on long-term care staff to help facilitate virtual visits while trying to juggle other task work.

Mann, 73, was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s himself and has collaborated on several projects with Hung in the past.

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“I think the adaptability of this technology just allows for so many things to do, so many ways to be connected, whether it be a physician needing to talk to a patient,” he told Global News.

“The portability of this allows for better insight into what’s happening.”

Response in long-term care homes has been overwhelmingly positive so far, said Hung and Mann.

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A UBC biomedical engineering student, Charlie Lake, is also helping with robot tech support.

Some of the obstacles to widespread use they’ve identified early include the cost of the devices — about twice that of a high-end iPad — along with infection control and privacy concerns.

© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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