Story Seeker: Myriam Benzakour-Durand
Person interviewed: Andrée Pelletier, founder and director of development
Interview date: July 15, 2021
ALAVIVA is an organization that uses technology to help stimulate and break down the isolation of older adults and people with reduced mobility. Maelström créatif, an initiative of ALAVIVA, is a bit like a conveyor belt in that it connects cultural organizations with people living in seniors’ residences and residential and long-term care centres in Quebec (known as CHSLD). The project addresses two societal issues: 1) the lack of cognitive and physical stimulation as well as the social isolation of older adults who, as a result, experience an accelerated loss of autonomy, and 2) the precarious financial situation of cultural workers, who are subject to fluctuating employment cycles (contract work, seasonal employment, and so forth).
The Innovation: A robot that serves the arts
When the pandemic began in March 2020, Andrée Pelletier, founder and director of development for ALAVIVA, saw a pressing need “to connect humans with other humans”. Feeling a sense of urgency, she borrowed a telepresence robot to pair interpretive guides from museums that were closed with older adults stuck in their residences. The robot offered, for example, remote access to a virtual tour of the works in the Pointe-à-Callière Museum in Montreal, putting the individual at the centre of the experience. In this activity, a cultural mediator in Montreal was livestreamed on the robot screen, giving the viewer a tour of the exhibition from their residence in Quebec City.
The first activities were offered in order to conduct user testing in the residence where her father lived and where she was also a family caregiver. For Andrée, the telepresence robot made it possible to connect “face to face, with smiles that were clearly visible—something that is in short supply in the residences,” in addition to making a virtual tour possible.
User testing showed the project had great potential and was easily accessible for staff members and people living in the residences. These findings encouraged Maelström créatif to become a pillar for ALAVIVA. The project was in keeping with the organization’s original mission, which was “to foster an active lifestyle and social inclusion for older adults and people with reduced mobility”, and it went on to add “with technologies”. Andrée plans to purchase several telepresence robots to offer on a rental basis and to use in the management of her matchmaking service that pairs cultural workers with residents. In addition, she increased the number of cultural offerings by identifying additional partners in different disciplines – museums, music, clowning, and recreational tourism.
Her connection with a development team in France led to the discovery of a robot named Cutii, designed for home care services. This new telepresence robot expanded ALAVIVA’s services to include an entirely different clientele, who had safety and support needs. This allowed the organization to get involved in the areas of health and personal care in addition to cultural services and stimulation.
The Challenges: Complexity, training, and novelty
The complexity of the business model made it more difficult to access funding. Although there is support for the project in cultural settings as well as from healthcare workers and older adults, government budgets for this type of project currently do not exist since there are three types of costs: technology (the device, connection, Wi-Fi, and so forth); funding for cultural facilitators (currently funded through the budgets of cultural organizations); and the management, coaching, and matchmaking components, all of which are overseen by ALAVIVA. “The Ministry of Education has budgets for cultural outings for schools. But this sort of thing doesn’t exist when it is for health issues. And the budgets are very small. We felt that it would be a good idea to draw from this model and apply it to health issues,” Andrée explained.
Programming for such a diverse clientele (older adults and people with reduced mobility) requires specialized knowledge and a certain level of agility. Since the facilitators are primarily partners – guides, artistic mediators, artists, and in-house volunteer teams – the organization needs to oversee the management, coaching, and matchmaking services. ALAVIVA brings the added value of finding the right match for the job, which benefits both the client and the facilitator.
Andrée has participated in numerous research projects on different levels and with various research angles in order to show the benefits of telepresence robots. According to Andrée:
There are several active centres for research on aging that study all kinds of gerontology activities. Many researchers are interested in that. I meet with them and pitch the product by saying, ‘Here is a tool that could be fun for you to use in a research project.’ We can help this product evolve, not just to sell robots, but participate in a solution, in a major social issue.
These research projects and calls for solutions have a common goal of finding a little bit of funding or finalizing a few sales. This money would allow the organization to hire employees to develop the two primary components of the project, one of which focuses on the technological, material, and logistical aspects; the other of which focuses on training, management, and matchmaking.
The Financials: Generate interest to free up budgets
The enthusiasm for the project is undeniable. Securing funding is rather difficult, however, because of the project’s novelty as well as the lack of a government budget category to support it. Andrée’s efforts to gain visibility, obtain funding, and finalize sales are very important for the future of this innovative project.
In addition to reaching out to active aging research centres, the Maelström créatif founder is seeking clients whom she calls early adopters. She describes them as somewhat affluent, “minimally open to technologies, who enjoy their living environment and want to keep living at home, and whose children are reasonably tech-oriented and willing to help with the robot.” Before the pandemic, this clientele had a $15,000 budget for activities and outings such as dining in restaurants, traveling, and attending cultural activities. This clientele currently represents the rental potential of the robots available through ALAVIVA, until such time when the organization secures funding to make the robots available for less affluent clients as well.
The Takeaways: Make connections, test ideas quickly, and develop a network
The creation of this project meets several social needs – the aging of the population, the stabilization of employment for cultural workers, and the lack of healthcare workers. According to Andrée, the need is there for her innovation:
In 2031, the aging population will reach its peak. And there will be just 2.31 workers for each older adult. That’s not a lot of people who will be working for quite a few people. The population is aging, healthcare is constantly improving, but the number of months and years for which we need more healthcare is increasing.
Artists will no longer have to worry about paying the rent: “Because if I don’t have a play at the theatre, I can always work for ALAVIVA for two or three months. Then I can stop or slow down when I have a play.”
Maelström créatif provides a solution that connects health, employment, and culture. “My wish is that this will really allow a large number of people to remain at home longer, and that it will give other people new tools to meet the needs of older adults, despite the labour shortage.”
Andrée communicates the importance of testing ideas quickly in order to identify needs, validate ideas, test prototypes, and improve offerings. She refers to this as open innovation or design thinking. To find suitable solutions for the issues at hand, it is important to involve the clientele. According to Andrée:
We interviewed and gave questionnaires to the staff, older adults, and a few family members to gauge the true level of interest. The pilot project took place in four seniors’ residences and CHSLDs and lasted eight weeks. We learned some things, and now we know where we stand and where we want to go.
According to Andrée, ALAVIVA’s development and exploration phase took five or six years prior to the pandemic, during which time they created a network, identified partners, and developed good credibility. It was necessary to have this pool before implementing the project. The process was long and consisted of one small advance after another. She participated in competitions like Cooperathon and La Piscine International Program, she approached research centres and potential partners, and she even contacted parliamentarians.
The Maelström créatif founder is a woman who is passionate about her work and convinced that her project will make positive contributions for older adults and people with reduced mobility, as well as for cultural workers and healthcare employees. For her, Maelström créatif is “50% for the employees and 50% for the residents because everyone goes away with a little piece of happiness.”