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SEASON 2, EPISODE 23

Enhancing the Quality of Life for Senior Living Residents with Robotic Companion Pets

December 06, 2023
Amber Bardon, Jim Murphy

Join our Founder & CEO, Amber Bardon, on an exciting episode of Raising Tech, where she has a thought-inspiring chat with Jim Murphy, Senior Vice President of Healthcare for Ageless Innovation. Ageless Innovation, known for their Joy for All robotic companion pets,  offers innovative products to help reduce social isolation, loneliness and cognitive decline resulting in enhanced quality of life for seniors and Senior Living residents. 

Tune in to discover how Ageless Innovation's robotic companion pets are helping spark meaningful connections and strengthening communication among everyone who has the opportunity to enjoy them, especially Senior Living residents.  On this episode, you'll also learn more about Ageless Innovation's mission of bringing joy, fun and happiness into people's lives through the power of play. 

Additional Video: YouTube & Joy for All

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Amber Bardon:

Welcome to Raising Tech podcast. I'm your host, Amber Barden, and our guest today is Jim Murphy, who is the SVP of Healthcare at Ageless Innovation. Ageless Innovation is best known for being the makers of the Joy for All Companion Pets. Welcome to the show, Jim.

Jim Murphy:

Thanks so much for having me, Amber.

Amber Bardon:

So Jim, tell me who are you, how did you come to work at Ageless Innovation? What's your story? And then let's talk a little bit about what is Ageless Innovation?

Jim Murphy:

My background is I actually spent about 15 years in the Medicare Advantage Arena, beginning with special needs plans , so focused on folks with chronic special needs, chronic conditions for those that were both eligible for Medicare and Medicaid. Traditionally, a marketing communications background. Found my way to UnitedHealthcare in the Medicare arena. Had a number of different roles there. Everything from marketing to product to ultimately innovation the last few years that I was at United. So I was the innovation lead with our biggest partner, which was AARP. Wherever there was joint interest between AARP and UnitedHealthcare's Medicare business, and it was innovation related , we got to work on it. As a lot of my coworkers used to say, I got to work on all the fun cool stuff. And it was everything from family caregiving to in-home non-medical care, looking at different ways to combat social isolation and loneliness. That innovation role is actually how I first learned about the Joy for All Companion Pets. It was shortly after their launch at the time within the walls of Hasbro and then I ultimately joined the company three and a half years ago to lead the healthcare business.

Amber Bardon:

So Ageless Innovation is primarily associated with the Companion Pet, which are robots. What else does the company do before we dive into that topic a little bit more?

Jim Murphy:

We are really well known for our flagship product, which is the Joy for All Companion Pets. They were birthed within the walls of Hasbro back in 2015. The brand grew within the walls of Hasbro and then there was a friendly spinoff back in 2018 where basically Ageless Innovation was formed. We took the Joy for All brand with us and it's really continued to be our focus- the Companion Pets, the cats and dogs. More recently, we have expanded our offerings, so we introduced a new Joy for All Companion Pet, a pet bird called the Walker Squawker. I think you'll really love the inventor story. Then more recently we reconnected with our friends from Hasbro about a year ago, and they really highlighted for us the growing interest in older adults and playing board games. We recently become the exclusive licensee of Hasbro's Library of Games relative to reimagining for older adults. Our umbrella that we work within is to reimagine how we positively live in age together by unleashing the Power of Play. So if it falls within that realm and it can help older adults and their family caregivers, their family members, that's where we feel like we're uniquely qualified to serve those individuals.

Amber Bardon:

Are you in primarily the senior living space or are you in other industries as well?

Jim Murphy:

Lots of different segments within healthcare. To take it back to the beginning of the launch of Joy for All , as you can imagine within the walls of Hasbro, a lot of the focus was retail and direct to consumer. The first few years were primarily distribution of Joy for All Companion Pets through retail partners. It was really within that timeframe that it garnered the interest of a lot of different healthcare and academic organizations. That was the time that I was at United and it really caught my attention from a healthcare perspective. There were some early adopters in the senior living long-term care space, primarily nursing homes, assisted living and memory care. We continue to work with many of those organizations domestically and internationally today. We've grown a lot of different lanes within healthcare as well. We have some Medicare advantage organizations that offer our Companion Pets as a supplemental benefit. We have some Medicaid organizations that offer it as assistive technology. We have a huge variety of different providers that provide our C ompanion Pets. Everyone from hospice and palliative care organizations t o VA medical centers to different hospital settings. A lot of different segments of healthcare are utilizing our Companion Pets.

Amber Bardon:

It's so interesting that the senior living industry actually came to you to see how they could use your products in their communities. So tell me more about that. What is the use case in a senior living community for the Joy for All Companion Pets?

Jim Murphy:

Use cases within senior living are pretty typical of the use cases in general, the two primary use cases and that's really where the most utilization and the most research has been done as it relates to our Companion Pets. One is combating social isolation and loneliness, and the other one is Alzheimer's and related dementias. Those are two big kind of hairy bird's nest of problems as it relates to senior care and supporting older adults. There's certainly a lot of overlap and comorbidity between the two, right? We know that people who are socially isolated and lonely are at higher risk for Alzheimer's or related dementia. And we also know that social isolation, loneliness, and depression are certainly at a higher prevalence for people with Alzheimer's and related dementia. When you look at the overlap of the two, it's tens of millions of individuals across the US. Our two primary use cases from the early days and still to this day are folks with Alzheimer's and related dementia, and then individuals who are suffering from social isolation and loneliness.

Amber Bardon:

When a community is making a purchase, are the pets primarily used in like a group setting, like a shared type of resource, or are they individual for each of the seniors?

Jim Murphy:

I think that's a really important point of differentiation for us compared to some of the previous robotic Companion Pets that were out there in senior living. It's early as the early 2000's, right, where you talk about 1 to many utilization of PARO, the robotic seal, as an example. We really designed the Companion Pets, which were an enhanced and rebranded version of an existing Hasbro product. This was really input from older adults and their, and their family members. So 1 is make it as lifelike as possible, but balance that with affordability. And that's been the balancing act for many years now. So they're very, very intentionally designed to be a one-to-one utilization relative to residents. One aspect of that wasn't evident early on by the input that we got from older adults, but it's really evidenced itself every day, frankly, for many years now, is this idea of pet ownership, right? It's not just a cat or a dog, it's my cat or my dog, and they've named it and they take ownership of it. So whether you're talking about within the senior living community or whether you're talking about an older adult who happens to live with their extended family, for example, in a variety of different settings, the idea of pet ownership is really important.

Amber Bardon:

I'm really curious, are there any studies or any specific outcomes or trends that you can share as a result of someone living with Alzheimer's having a Companion Pet?

Jim Murphy:

There are over 15 studies that have been conducted with our Companion Pets in a variety of different settings. Some of them focused on individuals who have Alzheimer's or related dementia, others where individuals didn't have a diagnosis as it related to cognitive decline, but instead were just socially isolated or lonely. And that was the nature of the study that I proposed and led within United Healthcare in conjunction with AARP. The Alzheimer's dementia related use case was one where it was pretty self-evident and I knew that others were studying it as well. The social isolation and loneliness and this notion of an individual who is perhaps moderate to severely lonely but cognitively intact, do they know it's a robot or not a robot? How do they interact with it and do they really even care if it is a robot? That was a really interesting dynamic for me. So getting back to your question, the common set of psychosocial benefits that have been evidenced through these variety of different studies really go to at the highest level, whether an individual has dementia or not, improvements in the quality of life, such as reduction in social isolation and loneliness, improved sense of purpose, resilience, and then really specific to Alzheimer's and related dementia. It's kind of the additional layers of being able to reduce cognitive decline or the evidence from these variety of studies as it pertains to individuals with Alzheimer's or related dementia. It wasn't just the reduction of social isolation and loneliness, increased sense of purpose, resilience, things like that. It was also about reduction in behaviors such as agitation. There were a few studies that actually had indications of being able to reduce the administering of psychotropic medication, which if proved out at scale, these are smaller scale studies, but if proved out at scale we know could be really meaningful to Senior Living communities. And so those have really been the primary findings of these variety of different studies, some of which were in Senior Living communities, others of which involved community dwelling older adults.

Amber Bardon:

I'm interested if you can share on the procurement side. If a community would like to move forward with the Companion Pets for their residents, is it typically something that the family members are purchasing or is it something the community's purchasing on behalf, or is it mixed?

Jim Murphy:

Yeah, it's really a mixed model. So there's a variety of different ways that we work with senior living communities. In some cases they're blended as to how they approach it. In some instances it's where, for example, folks within specific roles such as an activities director may have discretionary budget where they see the impact of our Companion Pets and feel compelled to use that budget to be able to purchase our Companion Pets. It's usually for select folks within a community, right? Individuals with Alzheimer's or dementia, or perhaps they've done health risk assessments and found individuals that are profoundly lonely might be their focus. So in some instances, they're paying for them outright. In other instances, they are putting the Companion Pets in front of family members to be able to explain to them what the benefits are of the Companion Pets so that they see, for roughly 125 to $150, that they can profoundly change their loved one's life and their quality of life by providing a pet for them. In some instances, it's kind of a mixed model. So where we're providing content to a Senior Living community to be able to help them explain to those family members the value of a Companion Pet and helping staff understand it as well. So as much as we've been around for 8 years now and 5 years as Ageless Innovation, we know the brand is discovered every day by folks in the industry where they're saying, "I didn't know that this type of thing existed." So being able to help folks, staff within Senior Living communities be able to explain the value to those family members so that they could positively impact their loved ones.

Amber Bardon:

Yeah, it's really interesting how we're entering the age of automation and robotics in so many different aspects, but this in a way is almost the most simple of robotics that are out there compared to these dining robots and serving robots and lawnmower robots and things like that.

Jim Murphy:

You're exactly right. That's something that we talk about all the time, which is there's complex robotics within the Companion Cat or within the Companion Dog. It's secret sauce is that it is simple to use and it's so simple and intuitive that there isn't a big barrier from a technology perspective.

Amber Bardon:

So along those lines, describe for me what is the experience with a Companion Pet? Let's just pick a dog because I'm a dog person. So what does the Companion Pet Dog do?

Jim Murphy:

That's a really important aspect of it too, which is whether you're talking about a Senior Living community or a different environment, is to be able to understand the interest level of someone who is eligible and would benefit from a Companion Pet, and then be able to have them make their choice relative to dog versus cat. I mean, we joke about that all the time. There's dog people in this world. There's cat people in this world. There's some that are both, and there are very few that are neither. It's the type of thing where giving someone that choice is paramount to the bond that is developed. And like you, I would inherently bond more with a dog. I've grown pretty fond of our cats as well. We have a caregiver guide to be able to help people understand this. For folks in the industry, it's pretty intuitive. Individuals who may not be familiar with that, or a family member who's looking to explore it, it's really a matter of exposing that individual to the idea of a robotic Companion Pet. Sometimes that's sharing a video, sometimes it's sharing of a collateral. In some instances, a Senior Living community might have a sample cat or a sample dog that they demonstrate and share with individuals. It's using that kind of neutral language to be able to let them define, do they like this idea? Do they have an affinity for animals? Would they want one of these? And overwhelmingly, we hear the answer is yes, even for people who weren't previously pet owners. That was something I was really curious about years ago, which is people who are previously pet owners, especially if they can't have a pet at this point, are very keen on the idea. But we've also heard many stories of people who weren't previous pet owners, but just have an affinity for animals and want to take care of something where they've adopted a cat or a pup and grown a strong bond with it. It's that neutral introduction and letting them define, is this something that they're gonna have an affinity for? And usually if they express that from the beginning, the bond grows over time. Similar to a live animal. You know , we've had a number of studies, the Alabama Department of Senior Services did a study a couple of years ago where they tracked 75, 80 users over the course of a year. They were looking to understand is there a novelty effect, and they found just the opposite, which is pretty amazing and really parallels a relationship with a live animal. Usually the longer you own one, the more attached you grow.

Amber Bardon:

Is your company an international company? If so, have you seen more adoption in other countries that have perhaps had more robotics in their culture such as Japan?

Jim Murphy:

We are primarily US focused in the sense that that's where we've done the most business to date. You know, the years within Hasbro , and then as Ageless innovation. That being said, we do make our Companion Pets available in over 30 countries outside the US now. And so we've seen a good deal of adoption both through public health as well as private payers. We've seen a good deal of distribution through retail channels, so to individual consumers out there in these variety of different countries. Interestingly, we haven't seen that dynamic that you described where I think Japan has an incredible history of development of robotics, especially as it relates to their use of humanoid robots. We've really not seen that much adoption there, and I'll say we haven't focused on it as an international market as much as we could. So most of our adoption outside the US has been Canada, the UK, and throughout Europe.

Amber Bardon:

Are there any other products that Ageless Innovation offers, or is there something you're working on coming in the future that you can share?

Jim Murphy:

The Companion Pets, we see a long runway for those in the sense that unfortunately, we all know that a cure for Alzheimer's or related dementia is a long way off. We also know that social isolation and loneliness where the epidemic that was with us before, the pandemic got greatly exacerbated because of the pandemic and is going to be with us in a very large way for a very long time. We know that our Companion Pets are going to be able to continue to address those. We have recently launched the newest member of the Companion Pet family, which was a Walker Squawker. It's the Companion Pet Bird that I mentioned earlier. The inventor story is really cool. A woman who's in her 90s, her name's Rita Malone, she was very familiar with our existing Companion Pets in the team because her daughter used to work with the team years ago while they were at Hasbro. Rita was supposed to start using a walker a few years back. It sat in the corner, as it often does, got grief from family members. She thought about how can I change the dynamic with my walker where I actually want to use it, thought of our Companion Pets, which she knew well and thought of the social interaction that they often create. Came to us and said, "what if we perched a bird on my walker? It would create the social interaction. It would probably change the way I think and feel about my walker and I'd actually maybe want to use it." We thought that was a brilliant idea and spent the last year and a half developing it and launched it late last year. It'll be a long runway to prove out that it actually does get folks to use their walkers more frequently and potentially through many studies to be able to prove out that it could potentially reduce falls. For now it's just kind of one more companion animal that hopefully gets folks to think and feel about their walkers differently and to use them more frequently. As it relates to the pets, I think that we also have a connected version on our roadmaps . So right now, the Companion Pets are very much of an island from a technology perspective. They're very interactive based upon the way that you respond to light touch and sound. So they're going interact based upon the way that you interact with them. But from a technology perspective, they're not recording anything and they're not connected to anything. We do have on our roadmap , a connected version of it where you can kind of think of the expanded value proposition that might occur relative to a connected version of the pet. You know, passive monitoring to be able to understand utilization trends and breaks in utilization trends. As an example, being able to have authorized parties such as family caregivers, professional caregivers, health plans, or other parties, to be able to gather that data once again in a passive manner, in a way that respects the pet owner. That's paramount to us. We never want to break the trust with the pet owner, but to be able to have a connected version that has this expanded value proposition beyond the psychosocial benefit that one would get from owning a pet is something that's on our roadmap . And once again, we realize it'll take a considerable amount of time to be able to prove out that expanded value proposition. The most recent product expansion for us in general, still within this world of fun and joy and play and still within this world of combating social isolation, loneliness is the rollout of the Joy for All games, which were really the reimagined Hasbro games that we've licensed. And the first three out of the gate were Trivial Pursuit Generations, Game of Life Generations, Scrabble Bingo, which is actually a three in one version of Scrabble. And so while these aren't as tech focused , obviously as our Companion Pets are, they really are still within that umbrella of our purpose or mission of creating social connections through the power of play. We've had folks ask, "Are there going to be online versions of these games?" Right, because they are beloved games. And that's something that we're exploring right now as we look at rolling out 3-5 new games every year, which ones would really lend themselves for multi-generational online play or peer-to-peer online play, as an example or through an app. So those are things that we're looking at as it relates to Joy for All games.

Amber Bardon:

That's really interesting. The passive monitoring piece is especially interesting because there's so many different ways that different companies are figuring out how to do that today. Jim, I really enjoyed learning more about your company and your product. It's a topic that I think is just really fascinating in general. So I really enjoyed our conversation. Is there anything else that you think our listeners should know that you haven't yet shared?

Jim Murphy:

If there are any family caregivers out there, I think that thinking about the impact that they can make for a loved one, we provide our Companion Pets through not just healthcare channels to end users such as residents or health plan members, but also through a lot of different authorized resellers. Everyone from Amazon to Best Buy to Walmart , to Walgreens. When you think about what to get an older loved one who maybe had to give up a pet or is showing signs of Alzheimer's or dementia, people often struggle with those decisions. I know plenty of people that have personally struggled with those decisions, right? What can I do to help my mom or my dad or my aunt or uncle from a quality of life perspective. I would just share that there's so many family caregivers that struggle with how to support their loved ones, and this is a relatively low cost item to be able to positively impact them .

Amber Bardon:

So Jim, where can our listeners find out more about Ageless Innovation and the Joy for All Companion Pets if they're interested in learning more?

Jim Murphy:

If you're interested in learning more about Ageless and how we work with different healthcare organizations, agelessinnovation.com, our corporate site and the one that's more product focused and more direct to consumer is joyforall .com .

Amber Bardon:

Thank you so much for joining me today. I really appreciate you taking time.

Jim Murphy:

Thank you, Amber. It was a pleasure.

Amber Bardon:

Listeners, if you'd like to find more episodes of Raising Tech podcasts or you have an idea to submit, or you'd like to give us feedback on this episode, you can find us online at raisingtechpodcast.com. As always, thank you for listening.

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