Nursing home robots dance, sing and watch for signs of trouble

Arshia Khan, a professor from the University of Minnesota Duluth is rolling out a fleet of robots to nursing homes to provide entertainment and well-being checks.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

The robotic age has reached the nursing home stage. A professor from the University of Minnesota Duluth is rolling out a fleet of robots to nursing homes to provide entertainment and well-being checks.

Arshia Khan programmed a robot known as Pepper, a 4-foot white and silver robot that can tell several hundred jokes — some of them better than others — as well as stories, games and dances. It also has a more personalized function. Families can upload photos that the robot shows on its screen.

A humanoid robot
A robot known as Pepper talks with residents at a nursing home. The screen can show photos uploaded by family members.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

“You were such a great student. Remember the day of your graduation. It was such a memorable day," the robot told a group of residents Wednesday at the Estates of Roseville, in a Twin Cities suburb.

Khan hopes that they can relieve some of the work that can weigh down nursing home staff.

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“Let the robots handle the mundane, boring daily tasks, and leave the essential, more tasks that require some thinking and stuff like that. For humans to take care of,” the computer science professor said.

The robots can remember faces and names, use health data from sensors that patients can wear, they can even sense facial cues to react in ways that could help those who become agitated or confused as the daylight wanes.

"We can have the robot come and start interacting, change the mood, change the emotion, and make the person forget about the sun downing effect," Khan said, referring to a condition experienced by people with dementia.

Monarch Healthcare Management, which runs long-term care facilities across the state, purchased 16 of the robots to be put in eight facilities, including the Estates of Roseville, where Mary West lives.

“What innovation! It's actually kind of weird to hear her talk just like a human," West said.

A smaller robot, this one named Rosie, has working legs and arms and can lead a group of seniors in a yoga or exercise session.

A humanoid robot
Rosie the robot performs a dance at The Estates at Roseville.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

"It can teach yoga. While the activities person could go and do one on one interactions," said Monarch operations vice president Dan Strittmater.

He said robots may help alleviate stress and burnout among staff who want to focus on the residents who need more attention.

"I think that'll help staff as well because caregivers just feel like they let themselves down and they let their residents down. So I think the robots working for them will help," Strittmater said.

The long-term care field has seen many employees quit or retire in the last two years.

At the robot demonstration, Carol Jones said she is looking forward to the new technology. Though many of the robot's jokes were corny and were sometimes tough to understand in the echo-filled room, she liked them.

“If you're having a bad day, you can go down and just get a laugh and forget your problems for a while."

Staff at the Estates are being trained, and the robots will likely begin working throughout the facility later this week.