Robotic companions bring comfort to lonely older adults and those with dementia

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Established research links animal-assisted therapy to improvements in mood and the quality of life for seniors, including those with dementia, but a growing amount of research is showing that robotic pets also provide the same kind of therapy. The results of a review of several studies of Pet robot intervention (PRI) showed “a statistically significant decrease in behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia (BPSD), especially agitation and depression, in people with dementia who were treated with PRI.” So, embracing this new technology, JABA welcomed robotic cats and dogs at our Charlottesville and Louisa Adult Care Centers. The robotic pets were generously donated by our friends at VATS (Virginia Assistive Technology System) and The Department of Aging Rehabilitative Services.

“We have been pleased with the positive outcome of this intervention so far,” says Kelly Langan, JABA’s Charlottesville Adult Care Center Activities Coordinator,” We have two members in particular with dementia, who have responded positively to robotic pet therapy.  Similarly, they both find comfort in cuddling and talking to the animals and consider them to be living pets. This is no surprise, as the robots sound and move just like a real cat or dog. They roll over, bark, purr, turn their heads when spoken to, etc.…”

Langan says one member who suffers from short-term memory loss, and who had to give up her real cat when she had to move in with family, was moved to tears when they shared the robotic cat with her and was able to reflect on memories of her own cat. Another member with severe dementia, who is unable to express himself verbally and who struggles with restlessness and anxiety, completely calmed down when we introduced the robotic dog to him. “He laughs and smiles at the dog and seems to forget about all of his anxieties,” says Langan.

And it’s not just about helping those with dementia. It’s also about dealing with the problem of loneliness and isolation among older people. Using robotic pets is now a growing trend at agencies on aging across the country. In April 2020, a few weeks after New York aging departments shut down their adult day programs due to the pandemic, the state placed a bulk order for more than a thousand robot cats and dogs. “The pets went so quickly that caseworkers started asking for more,” wrote Katie Engelhart in a recent story for the New Yorker, What Robots Can—and Can’t—Do for the Old and Lonely. A year later, New York had given out 2,260 robotic pets and was waiting on the delivery of a thousand more.

“Companies are investing more and more into developing robotic companions,” wrote Engelhart, “…a development that raises all sorts of interesting questions about human/machine relationships and the future of caregiving for the elderly, especially in a country where almost thirty percent of Americans over sixty-five, mostly women, live alone.”