Seniors/Aging: When a digital avatar watches over you

Eighty five-year-old Dan lives alone in Calgary in the family home he built near the lake. Ever since his wife Julianne died, his health has been poor, and he has been very depressed. His only daughter Annie who lives in US with her family, has repeatedly suggested that he move in with her or to move into a local retirement residence of his choice.

When Dan strongly objected to both options, Annie recruited a private homecare worker to assist Dan with his daily care. Annie set an open laptop on the counter so she could chat with Dan on Skype. She installed two cameras, one in his kitchen and another in his bedroom, to remotely monitor Dan’s wellbeing.

However, Dan has been complaining about his caregiver’s lack of punctuality and unpleasant behavior lately and Annie had no idea how to resolve this issue.

What if Annie can have a digital companion to watch over Dan 24 hours a day? Wouldn’t that be great?

Well, that option is available now. For a monthly fee of US $ 200, a human-powered avatar would be available to watch over a home-bound person 24 hours a day.

It comes as a Google Nexus Tablet, which when plugged in, will feature an animated German shepherd onscreen, standing on a digitized lawn. The dog is cute, though cartoonish, with a pink tongue and round, blue eyes, and wags her tail. She speaks in the female Google’s text-to-speech voice, gives compliments and even sends out hearts from the top of her head when you start stroking it.

Annie got the digital companion for Dan. Following the instructions, she uploaded dozens of pictures to the service’s online portal: images of family members, Dan’s boat, and some of his past hobbies and occupations. With the setup complete Annie flew to Calgary and handed the tablet to Dan, unsure of how he would respond.

When Dan switched it on, the dog on the screen wagged her tail, and asked’” How are you Dan?” Pleasantly surprised, Dan started chatting with the onscreen character. Dan named the dog “Alex” took an immediate liking to her.

Alex checks in on Dan every 15 minutes, calling out his name. She reminds Dan to take his meds on time, shows him Julianne’s photo and encourages him to talk about her. She would contact Annie when Dan’s caregiver does not show up on time or when she misbehaves.

The talking dog avatar is a creation of CareCoach (www.care.coach), a company based in Millibrae, near San Francisco airport, owned by Victor Wang, originally a mechanical engineer from MIT. Witnessing the suffering of his grandmother who had Lewy Body Dementia, Wang wanted to use the technology he mastered to provide comfort and companionship to older adults with chronic illnesses.

CareCoach technology is much more than Artificial Intelligence (AI). Once when Alex- the dog avatar noticed Dan holding on to the table for support, she instinctively persuaded Dan to sit down and informed Annie that Dan seemed to be dizzy. Wang feels that it will take at least 20 years for AI to master that level of personal interaction and recognition.

So there is actually a person behind the dog avatar, working remotely, monitoring the client, and typing in every statement that the dog speaks. When the worker notices anything abnormal in the client, he would inform CareCoach and CareCoach would then inform the family.

The company’s tablets are used by hospitals and health plans across Massachusetts, California, New York, South Carolina, Florida, and Washington state. Between corporate and individual customers, CareCoach’s avatars have interacted with hundreds of users in the US.

Preliminary research to determine whether digital avatars can cut healthcare costs has been promising, though limited.

In a study conducted by Pace University at a Manhattan housing project and Queen’s hospital, avatars were found to reduce subjects’ loneliness, delirium, and falls. A health provider in Massachusetts was able to replace a man’s 11 weekly in-home nurse visits with a digital avatar, which diligently reminded him to take his medications.

The digital talking avatar conveys the perceptiveness and emotional intelligence of human being powering it, but masquerades as an animated app. The fact that there is a real person watching them makes some users uncomfortable, but for others it is an acceptable trade-off between utility and privacy.

As for Annie, she is much relieved to have Alex watching over Dan and less anxious about leaving him alone.

Padmaja Genesh, who holds a bachelor degree in medicine and surgery as well as a bachelor degree in Gerontology, has spent several years teaching and working with health care agencies. A past resident of Red Deer, and a past board member of Red Deer Golden Circle, she is now a Learning Specialist at the Alzheimer Society of Calgary. Please send your comments to padmajaganeshy@yahoo.ca

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