Health & Wellness

USU-Administered Grant Has Lasting Impact on Utah Senior Services

Funding Helped Provide Services, Reduce Isolation During Pandemic; IDRPP Evaluating Effectiveness of Robotic Pets to Combat Loneliness

By JoLynne Lyon |

Utah's area agencies on aging were able to distribute robotic pets to clients, thanks to COVID relief funding. IDRPP is now evaluating the pets' effectiveness on reducing social isolation.

The COVID-19 pandemic shut down visits to the physical offices of Utah’s Area Agencies on Aging, senior centers and other facilities. For them, the shift to online services was more complicated than it had been for businesses and education.

Federal crisis funding was distributed to all states, and in Utah, it made a difference, according to Jennifer Morgan of the Institute for Disability Research, Policy & Practice at Utah State University. The $455,000 awarded to Utah’s Aging and Disability Resource Center was administered through the Institute for Disability Research, Policy & Practice.

The funding helped the agencies cope with the challenges of COVID-19. So many services to Utah seniors had been provided face-to-face, but now they needed to be delivered remotely to clients who were not familiar with technology. Some agency computers didn’t have the technology they needed to communicate via web conference with their clients. Senior centers had offered meals to their clients before the pandemic, and they needed to find a new way to keep providing that service.

“We contracted with all 12 area agencies on aging, and two centers for independent living,” said Morgan, who led the effort. “We had coverage statewide, in every county. The money was really to help with any emerging needs due to COVID 19.”

Funds helped senior centers transition from sit-down lunches to drive-by, pick-up affairs. “They would just drive through and get their meal, but at least they were seeing somebody,” Morgan said.

Funding was used to upgrade computers and equipment at the agencies. It paid for iPads that could be checked out to clients for telehealth visits or socializing or attending a virtual class.

“Some of these agencies and senior centers had computers that didn't have cameras and microphones, so they were completely cut off from their clients,” Morgan said.

IDRPP also worked to restore connections between seniors and their families and friends. The Utah Assistive Technology Program put together some trainings for people with disabilities, their family members, and representatives of education and community living. The trainings included booklets with step-by-step instructions.

“The seniors really enjoyed it,” said UATP Director Bora Lee, who trained 350 people statewide. “It wasn’t overwhelming for them.”

A Tooele agency was able to extend services to people with disabilities under 60. The Utah Commission on Aging supported adding a new and improved website for Utah’s Area Agencies on Aging and began adding features: a calendar with online events that could be accessed anywhere in the state; a portal to lifelong learning.

The crisis funding also provided some robotic pets for aging clients to help with social isolation — and they were a hit for those with dementia. The pets didn’t shed, didn’t need feeding, didn’t bring allergens into the home and interacted with their owners. Their more-than $100 price tag would have been a hurdle for many of the clients who enjoyed them, said Nobu Iizuka, the Weber/Morgan Area Agency on Aging director. The funding allowed some clients to receive the pets for free.

“We did this (placing the robotic pets) maybe six months into the project, where people and agents and staff at agencies were really hitting the dip on stress, trying to handle working remotely, not being able to see their clients,” Morgan said. “It impacted the staff that was able to adopt that pet out as much as it helped the person receiving it.”

The cat seemed a bit more popular than the dog, Iizuka said. The cat made a bit more noise — meows and purring — and the clients liked that. Weber/Morgan ended up giving more than 90 of the robotic animals away.

IDRPP is currently evaluating the effectiveness of robotic pets on reducing social isolation.

Morgan and others will present on their work at the Advancing States home and community-based services conference in Washington DC this August.


JoLynne Lyon
Public Relations Specialist
Institute for Disability Research, Policy & Practice


Jennifer Morgan
Aging & Disability Program Coordinator
Institute for Disability Research, Policy & Practice


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