Family visits through robots? Researchers test new tech in B.C. long-term care

It's the first time a specific kind of robot on wheels -- and with iPad-like screens -- is being tested at long-term care centres in B.C. Ria Renouf tells us this tech is meant to bring families and friends of loved ones in care closer together, and was inspired in part by the COVID-19 pandemic.

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) — A team at UBC has come up with a way to allow friends and family to visit loved ones in care homes without stepping foot inside.

The mobile Telepresence Robot project has been bringing technology to long-term care centres in Richmond and Vancouver in hopes of reducing loneliness and social isolation, as well as improving quality of life.

Using a robot, a family member can book an appointment with a resident through an app, which will then wheel the robot over to their loved ones using virtual reality.

Through a video link, they are able to see and hear one another, and even do regular day activities like have lunch together while staying apart.


Robots on wheels have been in the works for some time, but the pandemic really brought the importance of social connections into focus, and prompted researchers within the IDEA lab to begin testing the technology within long-term care.

“We want to see what it takes. What are some of the needs of the staff? The family? What can we put in place to have this technology available, so that we can increase access, to have family have more visits. It’s never meant to replace any in-person visit, but it’s to supplement,” project lead Lillian Hung said.

The IDEA Lab brings people together to contribute to innovation in dementia care and aging.

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For co-lead Jim Mann, the project is more personal. He lives with Alzheimer’s, the most common type of dementia, and knows firsthand why maintaining brain health is so crucial.

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For a year, many seniors and patients were cut off from their loved ones, and many people in care homes still remain separated due to travel restrictions.

“That’s what the huge benefit is. People are able to, family and friends, would be able to, in another country… to navigate the robot and visit their loved ones,” Mann said.

He says seeing patients and residents get excited to use the technology has been a highlight of the project.

“And maybe one day, you’d be saying, ‘Hey, dad! Let’s have lunch tomorrow!’ And dad’s sitting at the table, and you’d wheel up with the robot. And he’s having lunch, and you’re having lunch.”

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Hung says there are so many possibilities to use this technology in other areas, like music therapy.

Researchers will also develop an evidence-based toolkit to scale up implementation in more long-term care homes.

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