A Dog by Any Other Name

Pace’s Gerontech Research Team ushers in a whole new kind of telehealth as it partners up with GeriJoy, the talking dog brainchild of MIT alumnus Victor Wang.

“I think the guy was saying ‘doggy,’ but it morphed into Dougie, which is all right because those are words that our much older patients are able to say,” explains Assistant Professor Sharon Wexler PhD, RN, BC.

Wexler, as well as Pace’s Gerontechnology Research Team, has been woofing—working—with MIT startup GeriJoy on the development of man’s virtual best friend and health guard dog, Dougie.

“We have live staff talking to users 24/7, through the persona of the dog. The first time Sharon took the GeriJoy Companion home, she asked the dog what its name was, and the staff member on the other end happened to say ‘Dougie.’ That’s how we named the study: ‘I am Dougie, your virtual service dog’: An Intervention to Address Loneliness in Older Adults.” says Victor Wang, CEO of GeriJoy.

Whatever its name, the GeriJoy companion is a real innovation in the field of telehealth. The “talking dog” is an Android app that runs continuously on a modified (for older adult use) tablet and is connected to a remote support staff that works round the clock to talk with patients, monitor unusual goings-on inside the patients’ home, and report any changes to the patients’ family members. If necessary, the staff can request that a Pace nursing grad student conduct an in-home visit.

GeriJoy, the company that has developed this virtual service animal, has teamed up with Wexler, as well as Seidenberg Associate Professor Jean F. Coppola, PhD, and College of Health Professions Professor Lin Drury, PhD, RN, who comprise Pace’s Gerontechnology Research Team.

“We’ve been so busy this summer,” says Wexler, “We’ve been deploying GeriJoy and trying to get it in the hands of older or homebound adults at the Henry Street Settlement. We’ve also been working with Mt. Sinai Medical Center to pilot our study with hospitalized older adults. Not to mention we’ve written God-knows how many grants to further our work with GeriJoy.”

Through the app, the GeriJoy staff can see, hear, and communicate with the patient. They can also passively monitor any unusual light, sound, or motion changes, such as yelling, movement in the middle of the night, etc. So far, the majority of patients introduced to the virtual dog have taken to it—they can chat with the person on the other end and it keeps them cognitively active and engaged. After approval by the Institutional Review Board, and securing funding through the Provost’s grant for Thinkfinity and the Jeffrey Hewitt Fund for Faculty Development and the Nursing Research Endowment Fund from the Lienhard School of Nursing, the team sends nursing students to administer a battery of standardized measures for cognitive statues, loneliness, geriatric depression, and demographic data.

“We’re hoping GeriJoy will allow us to demonstrate that having this virtual pet reduces loneliness, depression, isolation, and cognitive decline,” Drury says.

The Pace professors are working with all-level students from Seidenberg and the College of Health Professions to pilot this study. The students go on home visits, offer tablet training, and work directly with patients, families, and the vendors and creators of GeriJoy.

“The most rewarding thing for all of us is to see the students working together, collaboratively,” says Wexler, “They’re all so excited and committed to the patients. I don’t think we’ve had any student reluctant to do anything—they’ve all risen to the occasion in such an incredible way.”

For more information about Pace’s Gerontech Team, click here. To learn more about GeriJoy, visit them online at www.gerijoy.com.