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Robots Tapped as Companions for Seniors

Robots have been used in the manufacturing sector for decades, but now they’re poised to enter the health-care industry as a kind of super-human social worker.

DreamFace Technologies LLC, a Denver-based startup, is paving the way with what’s called socially assistive robotics to improve the wellbeing of senior citizens.

The company’s robot, Ryan, has been honing his people skills in assisted living facilities, keeping seniors in good spirits with his jokes, stories, games, music, videos and more.

“We don’t create robots, we build companions,” says Mohammad H. Mahoor, who founded DreamFace in 2014 and is also a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Denver. “People enjoyed having him around; they related to him.”

Sarah Schoeder, director of wellness initiatives for Lakewood-based Eaton Senior Communities, which offers housing for senior citizens, said she’s seen firsthand how Ryan improved residents’ depression and cognition.

“I was a skeptic at first, but not now,” Schoeder says. “I see the contributions of Ryan to the wellbeing of older adults. Today’s medical field doesn’t always permit time to socialize, and the recent shortage of health-care staff has lessened any interaction as facilities struggle to meet basic needs.”

Mahoor says DreamFace conducted a four-week study with 12 seniors in 2021 to demonstrate the feasibility of using Ryan to improve the quality of life of seniors with moderate dementia or depression. Ryan lived with the seniors and offered companionship and mental stimulation through games and conversation.

“Overall, the seniors felt the robot helped them maintain their schedule, improved their mood and stimulated them mentally,” Mahoor says.

DreamFace employees are now adding more content to make Ryan a better conversationalist and to enable him to share new brain-stimulating games. What’s more, now that Ryan has arms that can move, there are plans to have him teach yoga to seniors.

“As the population ages, it’s our job to take care of it,” Mahoor said. “We’re developing technology that eases the workload for facility caregivers … and improves the quality of life as people age.”

DreamFace has received $3 million in fast-track small business innovation research grants from the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute on Aging.

Mahoor says his goal is to eventually lease robots to assisted living facilities for $1,000 a month by this time next year.