Worldwide, the number of people over the age of 60 is rising faster than any other age group—from 962 million in 2017 to an expected 2.1 billion in 2050, and 3.1 billion in 2100. The number of people over 80 is rising even faster, more than tripling from 137 million in 2017 to 425 million in 2050, and increasing nearly seven-fold, to 909 million, by 2100. By 2050, these older adults will make up about a quarter of the population in every region except the continent of Africa.
This demographic shift is already creating challenges to helping older people maintain their health and their relationships within their communities. A team of researchers from the Personal Robots group is exploring how robots might contribute to their social and emotional wellbeing. While previous research in this area has investigated human-robot engagement in the context of older adults, this project is focused on how the robots may affect the participants’ connections to other people.
Anastasia Ostrowski, a research assistant in the Personal Robots group, explains: “Social connections between community members are key to maintaining emotional wellness, especially for older adults. As they age, some older adults are unable to stay in their homes independently and move to assisted living centers. This can be stressful, as it requires orientation into a new community, along with changes in routine and location. Many older adults experience this change, and assisted living communities bring together a multitude of different people with varying life experiences. Community social connection is important to help older adults maintain emotional wellness and overall health in these circumstances.”
In a three-week study, Ostrowski and co-authors Daniella DiPaola, Hae Won Park, Erin Partridge, and Cynthia Breazeal deployed social robots into the community spaces of an assisted living community, holistically exploring their effects on the older adults’ relationships and perceptions of their community through participatory and human-centered design, mixed-method analysis, and art therapy approaches. The design of the study was a key consideration in this work.
“Older adults have a wide range of physical and cognitive abilities, so when selecting our methods of engagement and design, we had to consider which would both provide a flexible approach for participation and ensure the participants’ autonomy was respected and they felt valued in the process of working with us,” Ostrowski says. “This includes considerations like how long the activity lasted, or what accommodations could be made for participants’ physical limitations. For example, we included a design kit activity that uses cards some participants had difficulty moving. We adapted the activity so older adults could raise a piece of paper indicating their choice for an action (such as, “Would you want the robot to suggest you drink water?”) as the moderator cycled through the responses (“Yes”, “No”, or “Maybe”).