Using Technology to Provide Companionship for the Elderly

Page Reviewed / Updated - Aug. 2014

Introduction

Emerging technologies are offering new and intriguing methods of providing companionship to frail, elderly individuals who live at home alone or spend long periods of time on their own.  This article focuses on how these technologies work, their pros and cons and the cost savings they can generate over hiring home care workers to provide companionship.  It is helpful to begin by defining what companion care is. 

 

What is Companion Care?

Many phrases are used to describe companion care and while there may be subtle differences between them, generally speaking personal care and attendant care as well as companion care refer to care that is non-medical in nature.  Typically, this means assistance with bathing, dressing, preparing meals and maintaining a home, none of which require the services of healthcare professionals.

Using the phrase companion care implies a subtle difference.  Many elderly individuals living at home alone need companionship and mental stimulation, but not necessarily assistance.  This is especially true with persons who cannot drive, those living in areas with prohibitive weather and those with early - mid stage dementia or Alzheimer's.  In fact, companion caregivers often find they provide very little actual care.  Instead, they converse with the elderly, drive them to appointments, manage errands, share photographs and stories and remind them to take their medications. 


How Technology Based Companion Care Works

There are many products, such as easy-to-use mobile phones and computers, that facilitate communication with family thereby providing companionship.  While these have their place, they can only offer as much companionship as busy family members can provide.  Here we focus instead on technology that can truly alleviate loneliness and is a partial substitute for in-person human contact. 

Imagine a tablet computer, on screen is an animated person or animal.   The elderly person speaks to the character on the tablet in a normal conversational tone.  The character speaks back, answering questions, asking questions, reading the news, discussing topics of interest to the elderly person.    Behind the scenes is not a robot but a real person (a team of people, actually) who is listening and can respond to any question in the voice of the animated character.  They can give updates about grandchildren, remind seniors to take their medications or share photographs uploaded by other family members. 

Companion care technology requires no knowledge of computers and no use of a keyboard.  Seniors communicate as they are most comfortable, by using their voices.

Seniors can interact when and how they want.  Their animated character is available 24/7 and remembers past conversations through a log kept by the service provider.  The tablet computer can be moved from room to room in their home or from home to home should the elderly individual move to assisted living, require a nursing home stay or go to an adult day care / senior center. 

An online customer portal is used to allow family members to provide information which helps the service provider establish a truly meaningful relationship with the elderly individual.   Through the portal, family members share names, photographs, medication schedules and interests.   Photographs play an especially large role as aging memory challenges can sometimes makes remembering names difficult for the elderly.   The online portal also enables family members and caregivers to read a log of conversations their loved one had with their digital companion and receive status reports on their current condition, mood, activities and medication consumption.

 

Cost and Cost Savings

Companionship through technology cannot be thought of as a replacement for human companionship.  It is perhaps better viewed as a way to decrease the hours of companion care that an elderly individual receives.  It is part of the solution for caring for an elderly loved one at home, it is not the solution.   One might combine this service with a medication management service,a personal safety monitoring service and adult day care to provide an elderly individual with greater independence and further reduce care costs.

 It is estimated digital companions can reduce companion care costs by $500 / month.

It is not uncommon for elderly individuals living alone or who are alone during daytime hours to have companion care visits 5 days / week for 4 hour visits.   If using a digital companion service could reduce that to just 3 days / week, the cost savings would be over $500 each month or $6,000 annually. 

The companionship technology described here has a monthly service charge.  There are no upfront or equipment fees and the cost of the tablet computer is built into the monthly service.  One can expect monthly fees of between $150 - $250.

Payment Options and Financial Assistance

As companion care technology is a new service offering made possible by inexpensive tablet computers and ubiquitous Internet service, slow-to-respond government assistance programs have not yet included this option among their approved benefits.   Neither Medicare nor Medicaid explicitly state support for technology-based companion care.  However, Medicaid, the Department of Veterans' Affairs and several non-Medicaid state assistance programs allow for consumer or participant direction of care services in their programs.  

Consumer direction means that program participants' needs are assessed and they are granted a budget for care.  They are permitted to allocate that budget as they best see fit.   Therefore, through these programs, financial assistance is available to pay for companion care technology / services.   One can find a list of Medicaid, non-Medicaid and veterans' programs with consumer direction here.   

Is this Appropriate for Your Loved One?

One digital companionship provider offers free assessments to determine if your family would benefit from the service.  You can also see a demo of the product and better understand pricing, payment options and how much your family could save by using this service.  Read more here.