STRETCH THE LIMITS UI researchers looking into how new robot can help older adults

Author: Karen Blatzer


This News-Gazette article was published on 1/11/23

Section B: Our County

CHAMPAIGN — With its 5-foot tall stature and telescoping arm, Stretch the robot has already proven itself capable of a variety of household tasks older adults may have some trouble doing themselves.

Now comes Phase 2 of ongoing research by University of Illinois kinesiology and community health Professor Wendy Rogers with Aaron Edsinger, CEO of Hello Robot, the company that developed Stretch.

The first phase of their research looked at how Stretch, which has a mobile base, could be used to support daily activities, the development of tools to carry out those activities and an easy way for older adults with physical disabilities to control it to carry out certain tasks.

The next phase — about to get underway with a $2.5 million National Institute on Aging grant — will expand to include older adults with
cognitive impairment, Rogers said.

Urbana retirement community ClarkLindsey will be a partner in this phase, with researchers starting out by working with staff to learn how caregivers might find Stretch useful for certain tasks, she said. “The key to find out from the ClarkLindsey staff is how could this robot help you,” Rogers said.

What she and fellow researchers hope to accomplish is creating an affordable cognitive and physical assistant that can improve the quality of life for older adults with impairments.

It’s important to note, Rogers said, that a robot would augment, rather than replace, the work of a human caregiver—perhaps taking on such tasks as delivering a beverage or medication or picking up a dropped item— leaving caregivers more time for personal interaction with those in their care.

ClarkLindsey staff will provide input during the first year of Phase 2’s two-year research period, she said. “The goal is to think about how we could augment personal caregivers, how can we augment the kind of care somebody is getting,” she said. That will be followed by giving the robots a spin in both ClarkLindsey and in some private homes.

In Phase 1, older adults already shared what they thought the robot could do to help them, Rogers said. “They were very positive and had a lot of good ideas about how it could help them,” she said.

Rogers, the Shahid and Ann Carlson Khan Professor of Applied Health Sciences at the UI, has been working in robot research for about 15 years and working with older adults and technology for double that time. She sees many applications for a robot such as Stretch, she said.
Among them, for example, would be temporary in-home assistance for patients and their caregivers following a surgery, or for checking in on older adults in rural areas, with caregivers able to communicate with the robot and give it instructions when they’re not home, Rogers said.
In a home environment, she said, a robot could do such tasks as hold up a tablet so someone can make a video call or provide reminders of the steps needed for a certain activity.

Photo Caption: Hello Robot CEO Aaron Edsinger takes a drink from Stretch, a new robot developed by his company, which is working with University of Illinois Professor Wendy Rogers to research how Stretch can help older adults with physical and cognitive impairment.

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