Grace will spend time with seniors at Résidence Pearl & Theo as part of study on loneliness

Grace, humanoid robot
Researchers at Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital have launched a pilot project to see if human-like robots, such as Grace here, can help seniors combat isolation. (Charles Contant/CBC News)

Lovely, intelligent and well-dressed.

That’s how 82-year-old Frances Greenberg describes Grace, the newest member at her long-term care home in Montreal’s Notre-Dame-De-Grâce neighbourhood.

Grace is a rosy-cheeked, young-looking woman with a layered bob haircut. Oh, and she’s also a robot. 

Designed by the GeriPARTy Laboratory team, Grace will be visiting Résidence Pearl & Theo twice a week for the next eight weeks as part of a study led by Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital.

Her goal during each 30-minute session will be to keep seniors living in nursing homes company and help break social isolation.

“It’s lovely to have something like this here,” said Greenberg, who is among three seniors taking part in the study. 

“Unfortunately I don’t have any grandchildren, so it’s a first experience.”

Frances Greenberg and Grace robot
Frances Greenberg is one of three residents at Montreal’s Résidence Pearl & Theo taking part in the study. (Charles Contant/CBC News)

Grace is designed to listen when people speak, then generate a response. She can also tell jokes, do reading exercises and speak about topics that seniors might be interested in. 

To make interactions with the robot more realistic, the GeriPARTy team programmed movement into not only the eyes, but also the neck and hands. 

Theodora Montoute, co-owner of Résidence Pearl & Theo, says she’s excited to have Grace in her halls. The humanoid robot will be able to prioritize residents’ social needs and fill in where staff cannot, she says. 

“We, as caregivers, are busy. Our residents are not busy all day long,” she said. 

“The entire industry is so understaffed … we do not have time to chit-chat and play with the residents throughout the day, but the robot can.”

Montoute says Grace will also be accessible to all residents. “They are all on different levels — mentally or they are aging differently — and they’ll find that the robot will be able to interact with them on their level,” she said. 

Theodora Montoure, Residence Pearl and Theo
Theodora Montoute, co-owner of the nursing home, says Grace is a wonderful addition to her team. She says the robot will be able to offer residents company and a compassionate ear when staff are too busy to do so. (Charles Contant/CBC News)

Dr. Paola Lavin, a research associate at the Lady Davis Institute at the Jewish General Hospital, who is leading the project, says it is intended to help decrease loneliness and improve the mental health of isolated older adults — issues that have been highlighted throughout the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“We are hoping that the interactions with Grace could given [seniors] a space to vent, to be actively listened to, have social interactions and to enjoy a nice time,” she said. 

Amid staffing shortages in health care, including in nursing homes, Lavin says the robot can fill an important gap and serve as an assistant to humans — not as a replacement. 

Despite the fact that she’ll be able to see and interpret seniors, Grace will not be able to develop her own emotions. 

“She could be working [throughout] the day without fatigue, without all the mental burden of dealing with very strong emotions as we humans usually do,” she said. 

Grace humanoid robot and Dr. Paola Lavin
Dr. Paola Lavin, who is leading the project, says the results of the study will make it possible to improve the robot’s interactions with seniors and help achieve the goal of integrating them in nursing homes across Canada. (Charles Contant/CBC News)

Lavin says the team will be looking for initial feedback from seniors about their experiences interacting with Grace in order to keep teaching her how to better serve older adults. The ultimate goal is to integrate humanoid robots in retirement and long‐term care homes throughout Canada.

For Montoute, the project — developed during the pandemic — shows her one thing: “Finally, someone thought of the seniors.”  

After years of seniors being “ignored completely,” Montoute says she’s excited to see what impact this new friend will have on their spirits.

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