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J is unable to feed herself, at least not without becoming frustrated and tired, and creating a mess – which our dog loves. Her problem is a combination of hand-eye coordination, fatigue, difficulty maintaining a consistent upper body and head position, and dysmetria, a type of ataxia. My hope since the stroke was that she would recover her ability to feed herself as I see that as an important step towards independence, and it removes a significant burden for me, but now, 3+ years later, it’s becoming clear that eating independence is not in her future. Or is it? Enter obi – the dining robot… this article provides additional background on our journey through assistive devices and our experience with obi during a free 14-day trial period.

Feeding is Hard on the Caregiver and the Loved One

One of the most exhausting tasks for a caregiver may be feeding someone else, especially at dinner. After a long day and whatever meal prep was required, I look forward to enjoying my meal and using the time to relax. J’s needs push that aside, and require me to ensure she has a favorable meal experience. This process is frustrating for both of us, especially since prior to the stroke we used our evening meal to talk about the day and the world. Now, with her limited ability to communicate, the focus has shifted to me talking and trying to feed both of us at a comfortable pace. Thankfully, she is flexible and doesn’t complain about my cooking, mismatched foods, eating tempo, or anything else.

I’ve been looking for useful assistive devices since J started occupational therapy often with the help of a therapist. We tried nearly every form of utensil, plate, arm or wrist support, and grip support. There are a lot of low tech options, and if you have a very specific type of malady, you will likely find one that works. Most of these devices are low cost and many are low quality. J’s problem is complex so none of these devices solve the entire problem, and trying to use more than one device at a time led to something akin to a house of horrors. I am searching worldwide for a solution — one that will provide the needed support and structure allowing J to get food from the plate to her mouth in what seems like a very simple maneuver.

I recently found two devices, both developed outside the U.S. that might be good solutions. They are both simple jointed arms that attach to the table and help guide the user’s arm to and from the mouth. The problem is that one of them is no longer for sale, and the other company hasn’t responded to my requests for more information at the time of publishing. Which brings us to the next level of tech: obi – the dining robot, a robotic arm that relieves the loved one of any manual effort short of pushing a button or the like to select the food item and start the feeding cycle.

Balancing Practice Against Efficiency

I’ve mentioned in past posts that I’m regularly faced with the dilemma of choosing between pushing J to do more by herself versus just doing it for her in order to save time or reduce frustration. This happens multiple times throughout the day when getting dressed, eating, transferring, and showering. I try to strike a balance having her do as much as time and patience permits but actively step in when needed to keep things moving. My hope with respect to feeding is to find a device that would allow J to do most of the work herself, with the intention that she will relearn to feed herself. The obi device wasn’t my solution of choice since it does all the work for her. That said, if it makes mealtime easier, we’re all in. We decided to do a trial period which offered a 14-day opportunity to put obi through its paces at home.

obi can be Life Changing!

There aren’t many examples of useful household robots aside from floor cleaning devices. obi, developed by Desin, LLC changes all that and demonstrates the potential for the evolution of helpful robots. If your loved one is unable to feed themself, has reasonably good head and upper torso control, and can swallow normally, obi will change your loved one’s life. It’s easy to use, reliable, portable, infinitely patient, and just plain adorable. There are multiple ways to activate it with a variety of switches and it handles multiple food types (properly prepared) with ease.

If you’re asking yourself if we decided to purchase the obi. We did not. Not because it isn’t a very capable assistive device, but because, at this point in its development, obi isn’t capable of delivering a uniform amount of food consistently to J’s mouth. The robotic arm is very good at delivering food to the same point in space but J is not very good at getting her mouth to that same point. And J’s diet is very varied so the amount of effort needed to allow some foods to be picked up by the spoon in a consistent amount takes more effort than the value we got from her having gained some independence. For us, we’d like to see the next generation of devices that can customize its behavior to the user’s needs by sensing and adjusting to mouth position and be more precise about utensil loading. As I mentioned earlier, everybody’s situation manifests differently so the Desin team deserves credit for building a device that serves the widest possible audience — it just can’t be all things to all people and still be financially viable. I’m hopeful that as technology costs decrease, we’ll see more advanced functionality. Note: Possibly the biggest cost incurred in developing a product like this is the hoop you have to jump through to be certified as a medical device.

Obi, like many other devices, falls under the FDA’s definition of a medical device – therefore we have to comply with the FDA regulations.  Also, hospitals, clinics, Occupational Therapists, and other medical professionals want some certifications before they will use the device in their facility or recommend it to a patient.  In addition, Medicare, Medicaid, and other insurances require that the device is fully compliant with regulatory requirements before they will reimburse for the device.

Tom Dekar, Chief Executive Officer – Desin, LLC

Cost versus Convenience versus Utility

obi is expensive. If it changes your life, the device is worth the investment. Medicaid and private insurance often cover the cost, and there are grants and crowdsourcing funding options. All complex assistive devices from electric wheelchairs to stairlifts to robots are expensive, and there lies the problem. There is a vast worldwide market for these devices but for the prices to drop, there has to be broad demand. At current price points, caregivers may be reluctant to invest unless they are getting maximum convenience or utility. If Obi, for example, was a 1/3 of its price, I might have gotten one and enjoyed as much value from it as we could. Sadly, these devices aren’t following the same price curve that consumer electronics have followed and the reasons are the costs of the certification, governmental approval, and support processes. Certainly, some devices that could endanger someone for example need to have a level of certification, but I’m not certain it’s necessary for this device. I hope the future is one where assistive devices become more of a consumer appliance and thus accessible to and affordable by a wider range of people.

What’s in Your Future?

obi is a great device, and you should definitely try it out as the freedom it offers can make a huge difference in you and your loved one’s life. I’m going to keep looking for other solutions and advocating for lower price points and “smarter” functionality. I’d love to hear about what assistive devices you’ve tried or use. And soon I hope to write about a nationwide assistive device program that few people know about.

Thoughtful Comments Appreciated!

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