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Co-designing Technologies for Well Being: A Robot Companion for Older Adults

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Robotics is an industry that has disrupted the health field in different areas, including older adult care. Robotic companions for older adults have proved to produce many benefits, including decreasing loneliness, anxiety, stress, depression, agitation, and contributing to the improvement of social relationships, to mention a few. Currently, there are different options in the market of robotic pets for the older adult population. Among them is the Joy for All line of products. In December of 2015, Hasbro released the Joy for All - Robotic Cat to the market. While the product has been successfully adopted by the older adult population, there are opportunities to improve the nature of advanced human-robot interaction. The class, Technologies to Extend Life, taught in the Master of Design program at the University of Cincinnati, focused on designing the next generation of Joy for All robotic intelligence that could provide psycho-social support for older adults. With this project, the class had two primary objectives: 1) Understand the real challenges older adults face in activities of daily living; and 2) Develop innovative hardware and software tools that can meet some of the identified daily challenges. The class had a co-design approach in the many phases that included different participants (older adults and caregivers), utilizing a variety of tools to assess, analyze, develop, design, implement, and evaluate the interventions with older adults and communities. The significance of this project is to use a participatory approach to assess and analyze the challenges older adults face in activities of daily living that robotic companions may help alleviate, thus having an empathic perspective to the creation of assistive technologies.
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Advances in Intelligent Systems and Computing 1364
Kohei Arai Editor
Advances in
Information and
Communication
Proceedings of the 2021 Future
of Information and Communication
Conference (FICC), Volume 2
Co-designing Technologies for Well Being:
A Robot Companion for Older Adults
Claudia B. Rebola and Sebastian Ramirez-Loaiza(B)
University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, OH 45221, USA
rebolacb@ucmail.uc.edu, ramirej3@mail.uc.edu
Abstract. Robotics is an industry that has disrupted the health field in differ-
ent areas, including older adult care. Robotic companions for older adults have
proved to produce many benefits, including decreasing loneliness, anxiety, stress,
depression, agitation, and contributing to the improvement of social relationships,
to mention a few. Currently, there are different options in the market of robotic
pets for the older adult population. Among them is the Joy for All line of products.
In December of 2015, Hasbro released the Joy for All -Robotic Cat to the market.
While the product has been successfully adopted by the older adult population,
there are opportunities to improve the nature of advanced human-robot interaction.
The class, Technologies to Extend Life, taught in the Master of Design program at
the University of Cincinnati, focused on designing the next generation of Joy for
All robotic intelligence that could provide psycho-social support for older adults.
With this project, the class had two primary objectives: 1) Understand the real
challenges older adults face in activities of daily living; and 2) Develop innovative
hardware and software tools that can meet some of the identified daily challenges.
The class had a co-design approach in the many phases that included different
participants (older adults and caregivers), utilizing a variety of tools to assess,
analyze, develop, design, implement, and evaluate the interventions with older
adults and communities. The significance of this project is to use a participatory
approach to assess and analyze the challenges older adults face in activities of
daily living that robotic companions may help alleviate, thus having an empathic
perspective to the creation of assistive technologies.
Keywords: Robotics ·Co-design ·Assistive technologies
1 Introduction
Research has found that companion robots could benefit older adults in different ways,
including decreasing loneliness, increasing pleasure and lessen anxiety, reducing stress
hormones, depression and agitation, increasing brain functioning improvement, forge
social relationships, to mention a few [1]. Moreover, companion robots can be as benefi-
cial as companion animals [2]. There are many robotic pets available for the older adult
population. Among them are Paro [3], Miro [4], and the Joy for All line of products [5].
Paro, a robot seal, developed by Japanese engineers as an alternative to animal-
assisted therapy [3]. It is the most common SAR used in studies. Paro is modeled after a
© The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2021
K. Arai (Ed.): FICC 2021, AISC 1364, pp. 871–882, 2021.
https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-73103-8_63
872 C. B. Rebola and S. Ramirez-Loaiza
baby harp seal and has soft artificial fur and five kinds of sensors. With the tactile, light,
audition, temperature, and posture sensors, Paro can perceive people and its environment.
Paro can recognize the environment (dark or light), people’s interactions (touch, hold,
talk), and respond in different ways, such as moving the head or legs, blinking eyes,
or making a sound of a real baby harp seal. Some research has shown that Paro could
reduce loneliness in older adults and have an effect on depression and agitation for the
ones with dementia in nursing homes.
Miro, an animal-like biomimetic companion robot, developed by Sebastian Conran
Associates and Sheffield University as a friendly and approachable [4]. Miro has six
senses, 3D eyesight, touch-sensitive, light-sensitive, stereo hearing, echo location and
cliff sensor, for detecting its surroundings, face recognition technology, and more. It
orients, approaches, and interacts. Miro can turn its head, move, blink eyes, wag tail.
Like robot Paro, Miro could generate engagement in older adults and supplement human
care.
There is also a line of companion robotic pets, including cats, kitten, and dogs
developed by Joy for All [5]. In December 2015, Hasbro released to the market a robotic
cat under the brand Joy for All with the strategy to address isolation within the older
adult population. It was a great success, in which the company, now Ageless Innovation,
later released other robotic pets including the robotic dog in and most lately the robotic
kitten in late 2018. Several studies that have proven that the companionship of these pets
can calm anxiety, improve communication, increase social engagement, and decrease
loneliness. With the successful introduction of these robotic pet companions, there is an
opportunity to expand the capabilities of the robots by asking the central question: What
is the next-generation robotic intelligence that provides psycho-social support for older
adults?
The Master of Design program at the University of Cincinnati created the gradu-
ate studio-based class Technologies to Extend Life, where an interdisciplinary group
of students proposed the new robotic pet based on the robot from Joy for All. This
paper will describe in detail the codesign methodology with participation of older adults
and caregivers, and the development phase that rendered a prototype of a new robotic
companion.
2 Motivations
The motivations for designing robotic companions are based on four main issues. First,
the older population in 2030 is projected to be twice as large as their counterparts in
2000, growing from 35 million to 74 million and representing nearly 21% of the total
U.S. population [68]. Second, about one-third of U.S. adults age 45 and older report
feeling lonely, and those who have low income are especially vulnerable [9]. Third,
approximately 15% of adults aged 60 and over suffer from a mental disorder [10].
And lastly, more than 1 in 5 adults over the age of 65 is a “solo senior”, where the
number of “frail” older adults without children is expected to double by 2040 [11]. The
Gerontological Society of America calls for new and innovative frameworks to take care
of aging Americans, integrating health care systems, social care systems, and family
care systems [12].
Co-designing Technologies for Well Being 873
With these issues together, an apparent problem arises with an aging population in
dire need of care, and the opportunity to work with existing technology but expanding
the capabilities while responding to the real needs of the population. The challenge is to
design new models of care, all within the umbrella of developing affordable technologies-
robotics —Affordable Robotic Intelligence for Elderly Support (ARIES) (see Fig. 1). In
contrast to disembodied technology, physically present artificial agents— “robots” have
a variety of advantages for attention, motivation, and enjoyment.
Fig. 1. Robotic pet companions as new models of care
3 Design Methodology
This project ARIES advances a co-design participatory approach in the many phases,
utilizing a variety of tools to assess, analyze, develop, design, implement, and evaluate
robotic companion interventions with older adults and communities (see Fig. 2). As
such, older adults and caregivers are involved in the research and design process. With
the project, there are two primary objectives. First, the objective is to understand the real
challenges older adults face in activities of daily living. Within a co-design participatory
approach, the goal is to assess and analyze the challenges older adults face in activities
of daily living and how ARIES may help alleviate them.
The second objective is to develop innovative hardware and software tools that
can meet some of the identified daily challenges from the objective one. The end goal
is to advance a smart system of care – a triadic system for linking caregivers (fam-
ily/professionals) with the care recipient through the interactions with the robotic pet
companion. As such, it is to develop innovative hardware and software tools that can
874 C. B. Rebola and S. Ramirez-Loaiza
Fig. 2. Robotic pet companions design methodology
meet some of the identified daily challenges and implement these tools in the next-
generation engineering of Ageless Innovation’s animal-like robot. The primary moti-
vation is to design new models of care through affordable technologies-robotics with
the end goal to advance a smart system of care – a triadic system for linking caregivers
(family/professionals) with the care recipient through the interactions with the robotic
pet companion.
4 Assess and Analyze
The focus of this paper is to describe the activities undertaken as part of the developing
and designing innovative hardware and software for expanding the pet’s capabilities
and expansion of the Joy for All products. However, it is necessary to mention the
results of the daily challenge needs as they relate to developing such capabilities. With
the challenge analysis, we are now better understanding the difficulties our older adults
experience in daily living and how to design smart capabilities. These areas include mea-
suring vitals, falls prevention and emergency, memory assistance, and cognitive health
as well as social connectedness (see Table 1). These results were used to experiment
with conceptualizations in the development and design of the companion pet robotic
capabilities.
Co-designing Technologies for Well Being 875
Table 1 . Robotic pet companion need opportunities.
Do you have difficulties with…?
Mean
Difficulties with technology e.g., cell phone computer, TV remote 1.18
Difficulties with misplacing or losing things e.g., glasses, keys,
phone, wallet 0.96
Difficulties moving myself from seated to standing position or
getting in/out of bed 0.76
Difficulties with my moods, keeping a positive outlook 0.59
Difficulties with speech and language e.g., speaking clearly, finding
the right words, holding a conversation 0.53
Note: the scale ranges from 0-No difficulties to 4-Almost always
Would you adopt a robot for…?
Mean
1. Measuring vitals e.g. heart rate, blood pressure 1.04
2. Locating lost objects e.g. keys, reading glasses, wallet 0.71
3. Detecting falls and calling for help in medica emergencies 0.67
4. Playing cognitive games for cognitive health 0.61
5. Reminders of medication, appointments, exercise, etc. 0.61
6. Connecting with friends and family 0.59
Note: the three-point scale consist of 0-Not likely 1-Somewhat likely,
2-Very likely
5 Develop and Design
One of the main activities undertaken to develop and design the companion pet robotic
capabilities was designing the curricula for a graduate-level course. A graduate-level
course was offered and titled “Technologies to Extend Life,” as a concept development
project-based class. In this project-based studio class, students followed a design think-
ing process from deconstructing current robots to understand technologies capabilities,
to contextualize the problems such as questioning the human-animal relationships, to
experiencing the pet companion robot. They also conceptualized ideas as experiments
within the variables of pet type, and resolutions and types and validated design iterations
various times in the semester with older adults via focus groups. The goal was not only
to provide companionships but support advanced functionalities related to designing
care capabilities for older adults. The next sections describe in more detail the curricular
activities.
876 C. B. Rebola and S. Ramirez-Loaiza
5.1 Expert Interviews
As part of the class, experts in the field were involved via guest lectures and field trips
to educate the students. A total of three lectures were conducted: 1) an expert in social
robotics who discussed areas for expanding the pet’s capabilities; 2) ageless Innovation,
discussing the mission, vision and lessons learned in the development of the robotic
companions; and 3) a robotic technologist, who discussed the hardware experimentations
as a repertoire for possibilities within an affordable umbrella.
The main takeaways points from the experts were:
The pet is a bridge; it is as important for the end user as for the caregiver.
Engagement should be designing to be continuous and sustainable.
The real challenge of designing pet companions is to reframe simple technologies to
advance “joy” while being careful with intrusion (e.g., surveillance cameras), keeping
it natural while making people more social.
When designing robotic pets, we should exercise a “SMART” approach: simple,
meaningful, accessible, respectful and trusting.
The more realistic the interaction/appearance, the more connectedness and attachment
with the pet.
“The moment it stops being a cat, it loses its magic”
Ted Fischer, CEO Ageless Innovation
5.2 Project Phases
Designing pet companions involved different phases in the process. These phases
included: contextualization, deconstruction, ideation, inspiration, validation — focus
groups/co-creative sessions.
Contextualization. During contextualization, students were tasked to understand the
topic of designing pet companions under the following themes: 1) conduct competitor
analysis of robot companions alike the joy for all robot; 2) conduct line-by-line analy-
sis of news, blogs, comments of the current joy for all companion pet; 3) research the
determinants of animal-human communication/expectations/attachments; and 4) con-
duct ethnographic studies as participant observers by adopting a current joy for all pet
companions.
The general findings of this phase included:
While there is a broad spectrum of robots in the market and research laboratories, they
can be classified in the axis of entertainment and companionship, and education and
care; the care and companion quadrant is saturated with opportunities of character
like and animal-like and not so much as humanoid-like.
At the time of conducting online reviews, the Joy for All robotic companions’ show a
4.7 out 5 stars in positive reviews, in which 80% are 5 stars, 10% are 4 stars, 5% are
3 stars, 3% are 2 stars, and 2% is 1 star. The positive reviews about the pet included
interactivity in terms of response, movement, and life-like features (e.g., heart rate),
Co-designing Technologies for Well Being 877
while the negative reviews were focused on the lack of settings related to type and
amount of interactions such as barking. Nonetheless, the major negative review is
related to batteries and replacement.
One of the most critical aspects of animal-human attachment is related to emotion
recognition. These emotional recognitions could be positive or negative, and they
relate to the morphology and critical elements of the pet (e.g., snout). Moreover, the
human brain responds to animals as cute, and the attachment becomes possible when
humans can identify human features (e.g., babyface) in pets.
Participant observations and experiences with the robotic companions reveal two
significant aspects: 1) companionship is established quickly between the user and the
pet, in which upon removal of the pet after a couple of weeks of interaction is felt
like a negative experience (missing the pet); and 2) it is not so much about the type
and number of interactions that the pet can afford since the experience is reduced to
presence.
Deconstruction. This stage was aimed at disassembling the current joy for all pet com-
panion, to understand the technologies used, the shape of the structures, the mechanical
connection that affords movement, to mention a few. This activity was a class effort (see
Fig. 3).
Fig. 3. Deconstruction
The initial goal of this phase was that the team could hack the system and repurpose
some parts and the components (see Fig. 4). However, the team realized quickly that the
parts could not be reusable. The class found out that there is a big emphasis on reducing
the robot’s components to their minimal expression with the goals of maximizing battery
life and reducing the total weight of the pet. Additionally, there is a very successful
highlight of life-like features (purring in the cat and bark-back).
878 C. B. Rebola and S. Ramirez-Loaiza
Fig. 4. Joy for all interactive technologies
After the deconstruction exercise, we questioned how to build a robot from scratch
and started to evaluate the possibilities of fast manufacturing methods like 3D printing.
Inspiration. As part of the inspiration phase, the class visited Fabulous Furs, a leading
alternative to real fur factory, to learn about the type, patterning and sewing techniques of
furs (see Fig. 5). The major takeaway of this visit was learning that the manufacturing of
furs has developed enough to offer not only realistic looks of furs but mainly a natural feel
of furs. There is a wide variety of current furs, but new furs can easily be manufactured
with patterning the hair colors.
Fig. 5. Alternative to real fur types
Co-designing Technologies for Well Being 879
Ideation. As part of the ideation process, the class was divided into four experimental
ideation groups. The ideation experimentation groups included designing robotic com-
panions based on animal type (dog or cat) and resolution (realistic or abstracted) (see
Fig. 6). Older adults were invited to the class in the form of a focus group to validate the
ideation phase.
Fig. 6. Ideation experimentation
Results from the focus group indicated that the physical appearance determines the
success of acceptance and engagement with the robotic pet companion and older adults.
The abstract pets, for example, a body type like an Alexa with an expressive tail, might not
be engaging enough for the older adults. Realistic robotic pets confirmed to be preferred
and acceptable for older adults, which confirms the results from the expert interviews.
Also, older adults indicated a preference in the following items. The pet should resemble
or remind them about a past pet; the pet should have more realistic eyes, better quality
fur. Moreover, the pet body and weight should be a soft, flexible body avoiding not hard
plastic. While keeping the pet’s weight for ease to pet and hold.
6 Designing Robotic Companionship Premises
The most important aspect of the project was the community partnership and engaging
older adults via focus groups. We validated critical design decisions with older adults
880 C. B. Rebola and S. Ramirez-Loaiza
during the project in the classroom environment. With older adults’ validations, student
learning, and expert guest speakers, we advanced a set of premises for designing robotic
companionship and advancing enhanced behaviors, including:
Joyful
Natural
Personal
Unobtrusive
Preventive
Reactive
Connected
Accessible (UD)
When designing a robotic pet companion, the proposition should be joyful as propos-
ing interactions and appearances that make users feel happy and engaged. For example, a
happy dog face engages the user’s smiles. Natural appearances resonate better with users;
these natural appearances are understandable and straightforward, where the user does not
need to decipher what is it or what it does. Another aspect of optimal design is related to
making it personal.
Users who adopt these pets often want to adopt a companion that resembles a pre-
vious pet. Offering furs options, types of animal noses, and ears can help achieve an
individualized pet. Another major premise in the design should be the careful consider-
ation of how technologies are implemented within the pet capabilities (see Fig. 7). Such
integration should avoid being obtrusive. New integrated technologies and capabilities
should offer preventive interactions, meaning the system having capabilities for count-
ing/recognizing behaviors. Moreover, these recognitions should be integrated to alert
the user/caregivers as acts on helping.
Fig. 7. Materializing behaviours
Lastly, pet interactions should incorporate the universal design principal to reach the
broadest population; for example, a user with hearing impairments should be able to
recognize when a pet might bark or meow.
Co-designing Technologies for Well Being 881
These premises were used to experiment with materializing behaviors, modular sys-
tems, such as interchangeable noses, to respond to specific and individual needs of
adopting a robotic pet that resembled a previous pet. Figure 8showcases the final result
“Scruffy,” named after one of the older adult participants, which was inspired by the
Yorkshire terrier as one of the preferred adoptions of dogs by the older adult population.
Fig. 8. Final robotic companion pet
7 Conclusion
The purpose of this paper was to describe the design process undertaken to improve
the robotic pet capabilities based on the robot from Joy for All. More specifically, this
paper discussed how the process advanced premises for designing the next generation of
robotic companions for the older adult population. Designing pet companions involved
different phases in the process. These phases included: contextualization, deconstruction,
ideation, inspiration, validation — focus groups/co-creative sessions.
While the project/class was focused on enhancing the capabilities of current robotic
pet companions, we found out that designing the companion was more critical as it is
the primary interface between the user and its capabilities. When re-designing the pet
companions based on the Joy for all pets, the following aspects were experimented with:
materials such as natural aesthetics and feel of furs; inner body structures combining
hard and soft parts; offering a modular system for generating personalized options (nose
exchange, tail exchange, to mention a few); and size and resting position for the compan-
ion pet so as to be more graspable. In conclusion, this is a meaningful and exciting project
illustrating the power of multidisciplinary collaborations, community involvement, and
the integration of design in other disciplines and research projects.
The importance of developing and designing robotic pet companions is to advance
new models of care while embedding technologies for the health and well-being of the
882 C. B. Rebola and S. Ramirez-Loaiza
older adult population. The significance of including users in early stages of design is to
respond to the real needs of older adults, but also to create a collaborative relationship,
that can connect the design and development team and produce better outcomes, mode
desirable, usable, buyable products with more seamless interaction.
The main limitations of this project were time, as this project was planned for an
academic semester, and the use of convenience sampling for our user interactions. Both
of these will influence the layout of the next stages where the solution will be deployed
in focus groups to test adoptability.
Acknowledgments. This project was funded by a grant from the National Science Founda-
tion, division of Industrial Innovation and Partnership, No. 1717701. Next Generation Robotic
Intelligence that Provides Psycho-Social Support for Older Adults.
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... Co-design is the latest evolution in participatory design, aiming at engaging the end-user as a partner in design [43]. In a co-design approach, the person who will be the end-user to promote connectedness and attachment [29]. Most older adults have had a real pet during their lives, and probably want to replicate the relationship [30]. ...
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Robotic pets (RPs) are being increasingly used with older adults to address behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia, and as a companion in aged care facilities. Main benefits include increased well-being and better social interactions. To date, little is known about the use of RPs by healthy older adults outside institutional settings. The aim of this paper is to map the research about the use of RPs in community-dwelling healthy older adults considering the users’ perspectives. A scoping review was performed using four databases (Academic Search Complete, Web of Science, PubMed, and SCOPUS), searching for papers published until May 2021. A final selection of ten documents was submitted to thematic analysis. The participants in the studies were all potential users (not actual users, since RPs were still in development). Main findings point to three themes concerning the main expected characteristics of RPs from the perspective of community-dwelling healthy older adults: (i) like reals pets, but with less maintenance; (ii) performing multiple functions, with customizability; (iii) facilitators of interactions without promoting social stigma. Community-dwelling older adults seem open to use a RP as long as it promotes their well-being without facilitating ageism. More research is needed regarding the ethics of using robotics companion pets and comprising a person-centered approach.
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Robot pets are being developed and deployed to provide companionship for older adults. While robot pets offer some therapeutic benefits, their intended use for 'companionship' often provokes ethical debate, including concern that interactions with robot pets are demeaning or lack value compared to other social interactions. Another concern is that robot pets provide no real advantages over companion animals. This conceptual paper draws on philosophy, human-animal bond research, and technology development in robotics, to consider whether robot pets provide new opportunities for companionship as opposed to just 'reinventing the wheel'. We argue that robot pets may sometimes be as beneficial as companion animals or offer something different and distinctive. The paper provides a foundation for further multidisciplinary research to advance understanding of the ethical issues and the opportunities and challenges that arise in our ongoing and changing relationships with new technologies such as robot pets.
Effects of a robotic cat on agitation and quality of life in individuals with dementia in a long-term care facility
  • J Marsilio
  • S Mckittrick
  • L Umbell
  • M Garner
  • S Maiewski
  • J Wenos
Marsilio, J., McKittrick, S., Umbell, L., Garner, M., Maiewski, S., Wenos, J.: Effects of a robotic cat on agitation and quality of life in individuals with dementia in a long-term care facility. Physician Assistant Capstones (2018). https://commons.lib.jmu.edu/pacapstones/35
As Baby Boomers Move Into Old Age, Who Will Care For Us?
  • J Gastfriend
Gastfriend, J.: As Baby Boomers Move Into Old Age, Who Will Care For Us? (2018). https:// www.forbes.com/sites/jodygastfriend/2018/08/10/caregiver-shortage-who-will-care-forus/#24aa2be3532d
The Older Population in the United States
  • Us Census
  • Bureau
US Census Bureau: The Older Population in the United States: 2010 to 2050 (2010). https:// www.census.gov/library/publications/2010/demo/p25-1138.html
World Health Organization: Mental Health of Older Adults
World Health Organization: Mental Health of Older Adults (2017). https://www.who.int/ news-room/fact-sheets/detail/mental-health-of-older-adults. Accessed 16 Nov 2019