It’s no wonder people love pets. Owning a pet can decrease blood pressure and cholesterol, decrease feelings of loneliness, and provide increased opportunities for socialization. For socially isolated seniors or those with dementia, pet ownership can be especially helpful as pets provide unconditional love, a sense of purpose and responsibility, and sensory stimulation.
A pet can be a loving lifeline when someone’s world seems increasingly confusing and unfamiliar.
Of course, just when pets may be the most beneficial, seniors may be barred from having them due to residence restrictions or their own inability to fully care for them. That’s where robotic pets come in. These battery-operated fur babies don’t require the level of care that a real animal would, and they provide benefits similar to, and in some cases greater than, a real-life pet.
Paro, the artificially intelligent baby harp seal
Take Paro, for example. Paro is an artificially intelligent stuffed harp seal designed to engage with seniors in nursing homes as well as children with special needs. Studies have shown that Paro can provide similar benefits to nursing home residents as owning a real pet.
One study tested 40 residents in a retirement home. Half of the residents in the group were scheduled to participate in group activities, such as outings and bingo, for 12 weeks. The other half of the residents were scheduled to interact with Paro for 2 afternoons a week for 12 weeks.
After the 12 weeks, loneliness scores decreased in the group interacting with Paro, but increased in the group assigned to social activities. The study also found that the group interacting with Paro talked to each other more. The same nursing home where the study was conducted often hosts a real Jack Russell terrier, but staff said that the residents interacted with Paro more than the real dog.
Paro can be used to calm residents who are agitated, and the furry seal responds to touch with life-like movements and sounds. Paro’s own emotions and needs never impact an interaction as a real animal’s might.
The plush seal is a highly-advanced (and cute!) level II medical device designed specifically for patients with Alzheimer’s and dementia and can response to touch, light, sound, temperature and posture. Paro can remember preferred behaviors and respond to its name. The drawback is that this little guy (or gal, per your preference) costs about $5,000.
Robotic Dog and Cat Companions
For facilities or individuals with limited robot budgets, there are other less expensive but equally adorable options. Hasbro developed dogs and cats called FurReal Friends and originally marketed them to young girls, but came up with a version designed for seniors when they saw how they were benefitting the aging population. Now Hasbro offers Joy for All companion pets, which are less advanced than Paro, but at $100 to $120 each, much more accessible.
At Longwood’s Village on the Green retirement community in Florida, many residents who struggle with Alzheimer’s disease and other cognitive impairments are enjoying their robotic companion pets. The pets soothe and calm residents, especially during times of stress and agitation.
Longwood’s health administrator says that for many residents, life is about what is happening at the moment, and the pets respond in the moment—they are never busy eating, napping, or using the litter box. And when residents are occupied, the pets are dormant and pose no risk of peeing on the carpet or chewing up a favorite pair of slippers.
Staff at the facility note that many dementia patients treat the pets as if they were real, and even those who realize that they aren’t can appreciate them. Staff have watched residents come to life when interacting with their pets, and they are convinced the pets are providing a real sense of engagement and affection for residents. It’s not always clear if a resident knows the pet is a robot or not, but the important thing is that the affection and enjoyment is real.
Biscuit, a shaggy yellow robot dog, is bringing joy to residents at a retirement home in the United Kingdom. Biscuit was able to successfully interact with residents who had trouble connecting with people, and staff say he has brought, “happiness, comfort, reminiscence, and a friend” to the facility’s residents.
Why not use real animals?
Therapy dogs are used in many assisted living facilities to calm residents and increase enjoyment. The drawback is that therapy dogs can’t live with the patients around the clock, and they have their own needs and emotions to deal with. While robotic pets are unlikely to completely replace therapy dogs anytime soon, they can provide more companionship time with less investment of care. Robotic pets do not have allergens, have no chance of being aggressive, and love all people equally.
One retirement facility noted that a resident was concerned that her dog was sick when its battery ran out, but luckily staff were able to take the dog “to the vet.” After a quick change of batteries, the dog was returned to her very happy owner. The robo-pet owners feel a real sense of responsibility, and that’s empowering whether the pet is real or not.
Extensive research is still lacking as to how exactly robotic and real pets compare when it comes to benefitting people with dementia, but the staff at residences that utilize the pets seem to have made their decision. Lifespace Communities, which owns and operates several senior living facilities, believes in the positive effects of the robo-pets so strongly that its charitable foundation has spent tens of thousands of dollars to purchase pets for residents.
Ann Walsh, senior vice president of operation at Lifespace, says, “It has just been amazing. You see the residents calm down, you see them light up, you see them interact and you listen to them talk about memories of past pets. It just makes them feel good.”
And that makes us feel great. If you are interested in buying a robotic companion pet for a loved one, you can visit Joy for All’s website here.