Robot Zora cares for the elderly in Flanders’ rest homes


To cope with the aging population, more technological solutions are being developed to enable people to live at home longer and to help staff at rest homes. One of the most high-tech applications is Zora, a robot that’s currently a member of the team at De Boarebreker in Ostend

Humanoid helper

After a trial period of several weeks, the humanoid robot Zora was recently handed over to staff at the De Boarebreker rest home in Ostend. With its cute appearance, the 57cm-high robot looks like the latest toy craze as it walks into the room where this press conference is taking place.

Although Zora (pictured) has several fun features, like flickering lights that simulate emotional reactions, the robot is much more than a gadget. Its name already hints at what it is capable of: Zora is an acronym for Zorg Ouderen Revalidatie en Animatie (Care Elderly Rehabilitation and Animation).

Because of the zeal of its handler, we’re told later, poor Zora trips on its way into the press conference and – just as it is programmed – lets out a yell. But once the robot has recovered and is placed on a table, it gives a flawless demonstration of its capabilities.

After a staff member has pushed some buttons on a simple remote control, Zora stands up on the table and plays songs like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” and “Gangnam Style”, while dancing – encouraging the rest home residents to imitate its movements.

This activity is one of about 30 applications that programmers have installed on Zora. The software programming is by a company from Ostend, Qbmt, while the robot itself is a product of the French firm Aldebaran Robotics.

De Boarebreker is the first rest home where Zora is a full-time member of staff, though two other Flemish rest homes are also using it. Eight other trial projects are in the pipeline, including rest homes in the Netherlands. The feedback from staff will help the programmers to improve the robot’s applications and adapt it to the needs of staff and residents.

The choice of De Boarebreker as a main testing location for Zora is not a coincidence: The grandmother of Fabrice Goffin, one of the two managing directors of Qbmt, lives there. 

Reducing loneliness

Each Zora costs €15,000, but Qbmt has set up an agreement with the bank ING and has found a private partner to finance the leasing costs of €271 per month: communication bureau Gevaert Graphics in Wingene, West Flanders.

Apart from dancing, Zora can also help during activities like bingo and carry out interactive guessing games. “By the end of the year, we want to expand the number of applications to around 100,” says Goffin (pictured, left). “Many of them will involve repetitive tasks, such as reading out the newspaper. It is not our goal to replace staff members with robots but to help the staff at the rest home to devote more personal attention to the residents.”

Zora will scan photos of residents and link them with the names of the people in its memory

- Fabrice Goffin

Through its cute appearance and playful features, the robot should also help to alleviate the loneliness residents sometimes feel by keeping them company and interacting with them. People with dementia are seen as an important target group. Zora also has two cameras in its head, providing carers with video material to observe and evaluate people’s reactions.

One of the features currently being optimised is facial recognition. With this technology, Zora could help to keep elderly people from wandering off while disorientated, which is a big problem in rest homes.

“After scanning the photos of residents and linking them with the names of the people in the robot’s memory, Zora should be able to call out to the people,” says Goffin. 

Can’t beat a human

Fall detection is another important feature. The robot will be programmed to go up to people who may have fallen, ask them questions about how they feel, while staff examine the situation via the cameras and arrange assistance if necessary.

Patrick Delanghe, physical therapist at De Boarebreker, confirms that the robot is a helpful addition to their team, though that doesn’t mean it can replace a member of staff. “While Zora demonstrates the dance movements during an animation activity, we have our hands free to personally help the people with the exercises,” says Delanghe. The robot is also programmed to make jokes during the activities, helping to improve the general atmosphere.

It’s very pleasant to have her here; it’s almost like a piece of art

- Care home resident Simonna Codenie, 92

According to Delanghe, the robot succeeds in breaking down emotional barriers that some residents have built around them. “One of the residents, who hardly spoke to us and didn’t like to participate in physical exercises, has opened up since Zora arrived,” he says. “She spontaneously started talking to the robot and is much more enthusiastic during activities.”

That the robot has won over the hearts of a number of residents of De Boarebreker is clear. After the robot has finished its demonstrations, 92-year-old Simonna Codenie cradles it in her arms like a baby. “It’s very pleasant to have her here; it’s almost like a piece of art,” she says, smiling. “Besides, she’s always in a good mood and ready to help out during activities.”

Codenie also says that Zora keeps her company while she is painting, one of her hobbies at the rest home.

The various opportunities that Zora provides have not gone unnoticed by the government of Flanders. Its investment agency, PMV, is showing a concrete interest, while its agency for innovation through science and technology, IWT, has recently allocated a budget of €250,000 to a project set up by Qbmt with Ghent University (UGent) and the University Hospital of Ghent (UZ Gent).

For the project, Zora will be connected to a device to record electromyograms (EMGs) or, in other words, measure the muscle contractions of people during rehabilitation exercises. “So the robot will help therapists analyse the progress of patients and whether they are carrying out the exercises correctly,” explains Tommy Deblieck (pictured, right), co-managing director of Qbmt.

Fine-tuned monitoring

This particular project is part of a large research initiative, set up last September by Qbmt, UGent, UZ Gent and the Christian Mutuality. The two-year project is investigating the ways in which the robot can be deployed to provide interactive support to patients who are rehabilitating or suffering from epileptic fits.

Zora’s instructions, accompanied by music and sounds, should encourage rehabilitating patients to practise their movement exercises with enthusiasm, even when a therapist cannot be present. As Zora has two cameras, the therapists can afterwards check the videos to examine the intensity of the training and make adjustments to the therapy if necessary. This monitoring would be further fine-tuned through the recording of EMGs.

We were thinking to develop our commercial activities in 2016, but the interest has sped this up

- Qbmt managing director Tommy Deblieck

Via a Wi-Fi connection, the robot will be able to analyse the electrical activity along the scalp (EEG) and of the heart (ECG) – commonly used to diagnose epilepsy – and to ask personalised questions in the case of an epileptic fit. The current fit detection systems often generate false alarms, so the robot’s detection skills could prevent unnecessary interventions by nurses.

Zora could be programmed to ask for help, and the medical staff could always keep an eye on the situation through the cameras in the robot.

The project at UZ Ghent will also examine the extent to which Zora could be effective in working with children. Youngsters are, in any case, an important target group for Qbmt, which is also providing several schools in Flanders with the robots to help children with autism, for example. “Children with autism, who often have problems with social interaction but enjoy interaction with technology, are encouraged by Zora to more actively participate in games,” says Deblieck.

According to Deblieck, Qbmt has been hit by a deluge of questions since the end of last year, from organisations both at home and abroad. “We were originally thinking to develop our commercial activities only from 2016, but the level of the interest has sped up this process.”

Photo: Qbmt managing directors Fabrice Goffin (left) and Tommy Deblieck with their creation Zora

Friendly and super-smart robot Zora is helping to care for the elderly in Flanders’ rest homes

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