When Victor Wang and his family moved to Canada during his youth, his grandmother stayed behind in Taiwan. Eventually, she got so lonely that she said she might kill herself, so Wang’s mother returned to Taiwan for a year to take care of her.
This story is at the heart and soul of GeriJoy, a company that provides avatar-based companionship and virtual care services for Alzheimer’s and dementia patients. Care for Alzheimer’s and dementia patients accounts for $214 billion each year in the United States, and loneliness can be tough for these patients and their families. According to the Geriatric Mental Health Foundation, depression affects 15 out of every 100 adults over age 65 in the United States. Often, depression can be triggered by another illness, hospitalization or placement in a nursing home.
Some patients who have mild to moderate Alzheimer’s live at home, close to family members who visit as often as they can. Home care workers typically come by three to four hours each day, too – the daily minimum for these services, according to Wang, CEO of GeriJoy. And while home health workers provide a valuable service to patients in their home environments, having one or two people coming and going each day can be very disorientating for the Alzheimer’s patient, says Wang.
The patient experience
With GeriJoy, a senior can interact with the avatar of their choice throughout the day, even if they wake up at 2 a.m. They can also rekindle memories of their time with children and grandchildren with photos that can be stored within the tablet-based avatar application. These avatars usually take the form of a cat or a dog.
The seniors who use GeriJoy often consider themselves friends with the dog or cat they choose as their avatar. “They don’t understand the technology behind GeriJoy. It’s a little dog. It’s in a picture frame. The dog is a good listener,” says Wang, who notes that thousands of patients are using the platform now.
There’s not a lot to learn, he says. “It’s a lot of fun, in a picture frame. Whenever you’re bored and want to look at family photos, you talk to the GeriJoy dog.” Wang says that seniors will typically call the dog or cat a cute name that reminds them of a pet they used to have.
Beyond the social benefits, GeriJoy also provides a patient monitoring service, whereby trained professionals are observing what’s happening in the patient’s environment, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The avatar can also remind the patient throughout the day to eat, to take medication or to ask if their feet are swollen, which can be a symptom of heart, kidney or liver failure.
The experience of loved ones
Family members – those living thousands of miles away in California or in Taiwan or at work 10 minutes away – also benefit from the avatar-based remote care solution.
You just have to show family members how it works, says Wang, whose company provides a 30-day risk-free trial. Monthly subscriptions cost $249 and include the hardware, software, technical support and round-the-clock staffing. He compares this cost to the approximately $2,000 to $3,000 a month families pay for an in-home care giver. While it won’t replace home-health services, Wang does expect that GeriJoy will continue to be a complementary service.
Family members can also interact with the personalized avatar chosen by the patient if they’re at home with the patient – and they can have access to log entries written in the avatar’s voice. Victor says that both features of GeriJoy relieve stress and provide peace of mind for family members.
GeriJoy’s remote care givers will call the senior’s emergency contact if there’s an emergency – such as a heart attack or a stroke – and this event will also be logged in the portal to which family members have access. Wang notes that GeriJoy can also be relied on to notify family members of abuse by caregivers.
Today, seniors have two dogs and one cat from which to choose for their avatar. Wang says that additional avatars can be developed as more funding becomes available.
GeriJoy and New York City-based Pace University were recently awarded a $100,000 grant by Pilot Health Tech NYC, which addresses key needs in the healthcare technology and life sciences sector. Because of this grant funding, GeriJoy will be introduced to up to 500 inpatients at Mount Sinai Queens Hospital, which is located in New York City. Anticipated benefits of GeriJoy’s avatar-based companions include a reduction in duration of hospital stays for study participants, as well as reductions in readmission rates within a 30-day period.
Aine (“ONya”) Cryts is an on-staff contributing writer for MedTech Boston. She's a political scientist by education, a writer and marketer by trade. She has written for various healthcare technology publications and also served as marketing director at several healthcare software companies in the Boston area. Cryts is an avid volunteer, pet lover and long-distance runner. Story ideas are always welcome.
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