Today two parallel trends in caregiving for older adults present a double-barreled challenge: As the number of seniors in need of caregiving steadily grows, the number of available caregivers shrinks. In late 2022, an analysis by the Public Health Institute’s Workforce Data Center ranked each state by what the expected growth in job openings for care aides would be through 2028. Colorado was projected to see a 30 to 40% increase in such positions needing to be filled. Only three states had projections that were higher than 40%.

One possible way being explored to help fill the caregiving gap is the use of robotic home companions. And one such companion is going through the paces in Colorado at the Daniel Felix Ritchie School of Engineering and Computer Science at the University of Denver. It’s a project being done in collaboration with the Knoebel Institute for Healthy Aging, an AgeWise Colorado Provider. The robot’s name is Ryan. She’s been developed by Associate Professor Mohammad Mahoor and students in the Ritchie School, in coordination with Mahoor’s company DreamFace Technologies. (Note: Ryan’s robot voice can be changed between male and female, depending on user preference. In this article we’ll use ‘she.’)

An “empathic” Colorado robot

“Imagine a world where computers can empathize with your mood, tune in to your stress level and react to your social cues to make your workflow easier,” the University said in describing Ryan. “It may seem a far-fetched idea. But Mohammad Mahoor believes it can happen.” Indeed, Mahoor describes Ryan as “a fully autonomous social robot that can have conversations, understand, empathize and remember.”

“The purpose of Ryan is to use technology, especially robotics technology, to assist people,” Mahoor says. “Ryan is going to help people in terms of social interaction — those who are lonely, those who need support, and those who need a companion.” The robot can recognize who it interacts with and carry on conversations. “Ryan can read people’s emotions through their facial expressions and then mimic it back,” Mahoor says. “Ryan is an empathic robot, meaning that empathy is part of her character to support people socially and emotionally.”

Colorado seniors are part of robot testing

Ryan is designed in large part to assist the aging population, specifically those struggling with Alzheimer’s disease. She is outfitted with artificial intelligence technology and is equipped with cognitive games that help keep the brain active. Ryan can also remind seniors to take their medications, play music, show photos for reminiscing, and keep residents’ schedules up-to-date.

Ryan has been around in one form or another for approximately seven years. She’s been tested by senior citizens living at residential and care complexes in Cherry Creek and Littleton. “You never quite know where a conversation is going to lead,” said one of the residents at the complex. He said Ryan reminded him to have a good breakfast and to stay safe, even reminded when it was time to clean his room. “It’s amazing,” the resident said. “When I was a kid, like 70 years ago, I was reading science fiction stories about Ryan. So this is like being in a science fiction story.”

Mahoor says the goal with Ryan is to move technology to the point of humanization that can formulate appropriate responses based on understanding human mood, emotion, and perhaps even human intentions. His company is working with a Littleton memory care community to see how the robot can help people who have Alzheimer’s and other memory-impairing illnesses. “We seek to improve their moods and alleviate depression,” Mahoor says.

“Ryan can understand emotions by observing facial expressions and analyzing the words these people say,” according to Mahoor. But he adds the robot does not record video or audio of the seniors; it simply tracks the information gathered about their emotions, providing data that can help caregivers respond to needs.

Potential seen when COVID hit Colorado

Ryan reportedly filled some gaps when the COVID pandemic strained caregiving resources. At that time, Mahoor said, “We saw that social robots can not only help the elderly but also provide work support to caregivers. Furthermore, we realized that the elderly needed social support due to the isolation from COVID-19 quarantine orders.”

Mahoor and his team regularly collect data and study how seniors interact with the robot. This information is used to improve succeeding iterations of Ryan. For example, a fairly recent innovation is giving Ryan arms that move — a feature that allows Ryan to lead yoga and tai chi to help coach seniors on how to be more active.

Colorado seniors are “very interested” in Robot Caregiver

By way of background, when Mahoor arrived at the University of Denver in 2008, he nurtured a personal goal of making the world a better place. He says it was during his postdoctoral experience while working in the University of Miami psychology department that he was inspired to apply his engineering background to make lives of others easier, and hopefully a little bit better. He started with toylike robots to help children with autism spectrum disorder. Those robots, he said, could “analyze children’s behavior through facial expression recognition, [and] speech processing.” Ryan evolved out of that foundation to be a social companion robot that could help senior citizens suffering from cognitive impairment and also help the people who care for them.

The long-term goal is to continually enhance the technology and have a manufacturer mass-produce Ryan. The robot would then be available for consumers through a subscription basis, so you would only have Ryan for the time that you need it. In the meantime, seniors at selected residential or care facilities will continue to do trial runs with Ryan. A community relations director for one of the facilities has been quoted as saying, “Our residents are very interested in serving others. Working with Ryan in this trial is a way they can help advance innovation in memory care to benefit people now and into the future.”

Mahoor echoes that when he says, “The idea is to use technology and develop technology that can help people on a daily basis. We don’t want technology to just sit in labs. We want ordinary people to be able to use and benefit from technology. Our work can positively impact and change the lives of those in our communities and beyond.”

Colorado not alone in exploring robot companions

What’s happening with robotic caregiver technology in Colorado is happening elsewhere as well. Across the globe at a 2023 conference in Geneva, Switzerland, the International Telecommunication Union made the case for artificial intelligence and robots having roles in healthcare. Nadia Thalmann,a robot expert from the University of Geneva, introduced “Nadine,” a quite human-looking robot, who Thalmann said could prove more effective than human caregivers when tending to sick and elderly persons. Nadine has human-like gestures and expressions, can talk and sing, and played bingo with residents at a nursing home. “It was a great experience and I enjoyed interacting with the elderly and helping them with their needs,” said the robot.

In reporting on the conference, Reuters news agency noted that global competition for nurses and caregivers “is heating up” and “some countries are experiencing a staffing crisis in care homes which some think humanoid robots could one day ease.” This fairly describes the general situation in Colorado. Thalmann noted that where human caregivers are in short supply and stretched to the limit with not enough caregiving hours in the day, a robot like Nadine has time to provide care around the clock and never gets fatigued doing so.