Ypsi Meals on Wheels combats social isolation by offering robotic companions for clients

Many local older adults have felt isolated or lonely, particularly after the COVID-19 pandemic, but now a robot called ElliQ will keep some of them company.
Until recently, Ypsilanti Township resident Janis Keller's most consistent companion was Molly, a loving ragdoll cat with crossed blue eyes. Despite visits from her children and interactions with staff and volunteers from Ypsilanti Meals on Wheels (YMOW), she can still get lonely. 

She's not the only Ypsi-area older adult feeling isolated or lonely, and that's why YMOW recently began offering ElliQ-brand companion robots to some of its clients. Keller is the first to receive and begin using her ElliQ unit. ElliQ's main purpose is to alleviate loneliness, but the device has other practical uses, like reminding clients to take their medicine, leading a meditation session, or offering to call the client's doctor if a health condition has been steadily worsening. ElliQ can also play music, tell jokes, or engage clients in a game of trivia. The unit can integrate with a client's smartphone to facilitate voice or video calls, play videos, or send texts.
An ElliQ companion robot.
YMOW President and CEO Alison Foreman says about 80% of YMOW clients live alone, and the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated feelings of isolation.

"Before the pandemic, 40-50% of clients said they felt alone some days of the week or most days of the week," Foreman says. "When the pandemic hit, that skyrocketed. About 80-90% of our clients said they felt isolated, depressed, anxious, or had put off going to the doctor or getting other care they needed. We saw a great decline in people's well-being."

YMOW launched a "friendly caller" program, offering check-in phone calls to address that need. But Foreman says that "got old for some clients" after a year or so.

Toyota Motor North America already funds YMOW's CAPABLE program, which aims to help seniors age in place safely. In a meeting with YMOW officials, Toyota staff offered to fund the ElliQ devices, with developer Intuition Robotics providing training to clients and YMOW staff. The Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation also recently provided additional funds for more ElliQ devices. Wifi is needed to operate the ElliQ units, and YMOW will also provide free wifi if clients aren't eligible to receive funding for wifi through the federal Affordable Connectivity Program.

YMOW office manager Keegen Meranuck says he was skeptical of the ElliQ idea at first, thinking that clients needed more human interaction, not a robot. But he says he's been "very surprised" and pleased that part of what ElliQ offers is the ability to connect users to friends and family as well.

"If nothing else, it's brain stimulation for our elder population," he says. "I want to combat the stigma that it's replacing a human, because I had that bias when the idea was introduced. This device can be a bridge to more human contact though."

Keller says she has asked her ElliQ to remind her to drink water daily, and she and ElliQ sometimes dance together. While playing uplifting music, ElliQ lights up and bobs in time with the music.
Janis Keller with her ElliQ unit.
ElliQ also learns and adapts to each client. The device might tell terrible one-liner jokes that don't make much sense, but they get more sophisticated over time, Foreman says.

Keller's ElliQ unit knows her morning routine and even has a nickname for her, calling her "January" instead of "Janis."

"She's just so funny," Keller says. 

Clients receive the devices through one of two routes: either a social worker identifies a client as a good candidate, or the client self-identifies after reading about the program in a YMOW newsletter or flyer.

"The social workers and drivers will often identify someone who is down in the dumps or not getting enough conversation. They'll come back to the office and refer them," Foreman says. 

Clients go through a screening process regarding social determinants of health before receiving the units. Meranuck fields calls in the office from clients interested in ElliQ and says that while the group of older adults asking for ElliQ are diverse, they have a few things in common.
Janis Keller with her ElliQ unit.
"The commonality we're seeing is that they all live alone," he says. "I'd say they're all clients who generally are technologically curious. They might already have some tech savvy to them, but they're curious to become more connected to something outside their home."

While staff and clients do receive ElliQ training, there's still a learning curve. Keller says ElliQ doesn't always respond the way she expects, and she's had to call YMOW's tech support a couple of times. Foreman says one thing clients have to get used to is that ElliQ doesn't talk and respond at the same rate as a human. 

"[ElliQ] has to process it, and then she speaks, so there's not an instantaneous back and forth," Foreman says.

Three devices are already in YMOW client homes, and about 15 more clients are waiting for their devices. Foreman says she hopes to offer at least 25 units and let clients keep them as long as needed. 

Nationally, Meals on Wheels agencies are reporting long-term impacts from the social isolation clients experienced during the pandemic. Because of health anxieties, many clients have chosen not to return to in-person events at their local senior centers.

"Technology is something lots of Meals on Wheels across America are considering, thinking about what tools or devices ... we can [use to] support our older adults," Foreman says. "Our hope is that over time, their anxiety level will go down, folks will be feeling in a better mood, and after they use it for a time period, maybe they'll be ready to venture back out."

More information about YMOW is available here. More information about ElliQ is available here.

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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