ConsumerWatch: Seniors Get Help From Virtual Animated Pets Backed By Human Caregivers

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX) — Eleanor has a real cat and a virtual dog. In addition to keeping her company, Pooki — a cute animated cartoon avatar — helps to care for the 93-year-old when her human caregivers aren’t around. Pooki even plays music and shows Eleanor pre-loaded pictures on her tablet computer.

Pooki is sort of like Siri for seniors and, like Siri, not every conversation is perfect.

But, unlike Siri, there’s a real live human behind Pooki, speaking from half a world away and even — in some cases — conducting several conversations simultaneously.

The company behind Pooki is called GeriJoy (gerijoy.com) and its founder and CEO, Victor Wang, explains that there’s a trained team of care providers based in the Philippines who can see their clients using a tablet computer’s built-in camera. They respond by typing their replies into a text-to-speech program.

The technology is meant to keep seniors like Eleanor cognitively engaged and keep an eye out for problems.

David Lindeman, with the Center for Tech and Aging, says supplemental virtual caregivers can be useful, so long as we don’t forget there’s nothing to compare to the human touch.

“We are seeing some research that, in some cases, avatars are preferred because they can be neutral parties,” he said.

And, like it or not, Lindeman says technology will play an ever larger role in senior care.

Eleanor is the mother of a GeriJoy employee. The device and service starts at $250 per month. According to Wang, potential caregivers hired by GeriJoy undergo rigorous training and only about 1 percent of those who apply are hired.

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