Innovative robot helps seniors in so many ways

Fernando Montalvo discusses technological solutions that could make living with dementia more manageable during a presentation at One Senior Place in Viera.

Whether you’re sad, happy, excited or scared — Pepper knows — and can respond appropriately.

Originally from France and very popular in Japan, Pepper recently arrived in the United States. Researchers say this 4-foot-tall humanoid robot might provide exciting new advances in geriatric health care — particularly for people living with dementia.

Pepper was just one of the technological marvels Fernando Montalvo shared during his presentation — Technology & Dementia: Coming Solutions — at One Senior Place on Nov. 8.

As a doctoral student in the Human Factors and Cognitive Psychology program at the University of Central Florida and part of its Technology and Aging Laboratory, Montalvo, who is also a recipient of the McKnight Doctoral Fellowship, is particularly focused on the use of social robotics and other technology to assist older populations with issues ranging from loneliness to disease management.

As part of a field called assistive technology, Montalvo explained that robots such as Pepper can serve a multitude of helpful functions in memory-care facilities. It includes acting as a first responder to guide residents away from harm. For example, if a patient enters a room they are not supposed to be in, the robot detects this and immediately alerts the nurse’s station.

"The longest a human can be vigilant is 7 to 15 minutes, which leads to health-care worker errors," Montalvo said. "Robots can fill the gap because they are always vigilant."

Algorithm-enhanced video monitoring also is at the forefront of Montalvo’s research.

"Advanced cameras placed throughout a facility can perform a wide range of duties, including face recognition, gait analysis and fall detection," he said. "This provides more comprehensive and current information on each individual."

Smart clothing is another area of interest with sensors built into clothing that can quickly detect a change in gait, which could lead to a fall. It reports the danger to caregivers in real time.

And while most are familiar with personal virtual assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa and Echo devices, researchers are working on devices tailored primarily to aging populations.

"For people with dementia, these devices can provide verbal instruction to help with disorientation," Montalvo said. "They can also react to patient movement, promote social engagement, track habits and control the environment."

In addition, the devices can serve as a reminder system for meals and medications. It can track any cognitive decline by analyzing delayed responses, word articulation and changes in speech patterns.

Montalvo made it clear that these robots, cameras and devices are in no way meant to replace human care workers — only to assist — and help mitigate the high health-care staff turnover rate.

"Technology can overcome human limitations," Montalvo said. "But we are looking at how we can assist staff  — not replace them."