Minnesota nursing homes to use robots to care for elderly amid staffing shortage

Robots designed to provide for the elderly's emotional needs and to be "the loved one to the resident when the family couldn't be there" will be rolled out in eight Minnesota nursing homes come January.

Professor Khan sits beside one of her nursing home robots. (YouTube/UMNDuluth)

Elderly Minnesota nursing home residents will soon be cared for, in part, by robots designed to support the elderly’s emotional and cognitive needs.

“This is just the start,” said Arshia Khan, a professor of computer science at the University of Minnesota, Duluth (UMD). Khan has teamed up with her students to program an existing robot designed by SoftBank Robotics to care for the elderly. Her anthropomorphic creations will be deployed to Monarch Healthcare facilities across the state in January to ease staffing shortages. Monarch manages 36 Minnesota nursing homes, eight of them will receive robots.

This idea is not new. Khan has researched ways to make robots that care for nursing home residents for years, but her work gained a new level of recognition amid the COVID-19 pandemic as patients in long-term care facilities were forcibly barred from interacting with their loved ones. Khan saw interaction with robots as one possible remedy to this problem.

“This is absolutely the first time in the history of [the] United States … it’s been done in Japan but never in the U.S., using robots, humanoid robots, to help offer care,” Khan said, commenting on the impending rollout of the new devices. Some might be hesitant to model America’s senior care after Japan, however — suicide is disturbingly common among the elderly there.

“I would love to see them be in every facility, be the roommate to every resident … they’re the loved one to the resident when the family couldn’t be there” said Marc Halpert, chief operating officer of Monarch.

The primary function of the robots will be to provide emotional support and companionship as well as cognitive stimulation for those suffering from dementia. “We can also like, avoid social isolation of the patient by having Pepper [one of the robots] have some kind of conversation with them,” explained Yumna Anwar, a graduate student at UMD.

Normally, these functions would be fulfilled by a human medical professional, but this is increasingly unrealistic as staffing shortages plague long-term care facilities.

“Seventy percent of nursing homes are limiting admissions due to lack of staff,” said Erin Hilligan, vice president of operations at Ebenezer Care Center. This extreme worker shortage is driven by burnout and vaccine mandates, according to nursing home administrators.

“There is going to be a mass exodus” of workers if vaccine mandates are enforced, warned Natalie Zeleznikar, a nursing home executive, at a meeting of a Minnesota Senate committee earlier this month. “There is going to be nobody” taking care of residents, she predicted.


Kyle Hooten

Kyle Hooten is Managing Editor of Alpha News. His coverage of Minneapolis has been featured on television shows like Tucker Carlson Tonight and in print media outlets like the Wall Street Journal.