Could Robotic Therapy Pets Support Senior Care Facility Residents?

Ted Fischer, Co-Founder and CEO, Ageless Innovation

The benefits of having pets are undeniable. Pets provide valuable socialization, companionship, affection, entertainment, and more. Pet owners tend to be more active than those who don’t have pets. Pets have also been associated with reduced stress levels and healthier hearts in their human companions.

But as seniors age, having a pet may become impractical or impossible, whether that’s due to financial, physical, or logistical reasons. To help fill the void that the lack of a pet creates, some companies have started to manufacture robotic therapy pets. Could these pets help support seniors in care facilities?

The Development of Robotic Pets

Ted Fischer, Co-Founder and CEO of Ageless Innovation, notes that the Joy for All Companion Pets line was inspired by how consumers used Hasbro products.

Ageless Innovation found that insights on products produced as many as 20 years ago indicated that while the products were indicated for girls, the reviews were often written about aging loved ones enjoying those toys.

“Older adults want to have more fun and play,” says Fischer. “We work hard our whole lives to get to this point where we can play more. Older adults also have a need and desire for interactive companionship. People are distanced from their families, and relatives may be alone or may no longer have a pet. We wanted to build something that was a give and take – you gave it a pat or a hug, and you got something in return, like a sound or response.”

For Tom Stevens, Co-Founder and CEO of Tombot, the inspiration was personal. Stevens spent more than 30 years as a high tech C-level executive before earning his Masters in Business Management from Stanford University.

“My mother gave me a new focus,” he explains. “She was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2011, and we had to take her dog away for safety reasons.” In 2017, the Tombot prototype launched, and repeated studies with customers with dementia and several prototypes later have resulted in Jennie, the fifth-generation prototype.

Tom Stevens, Co-Founder and CEO, Tombot

What Robotic Pets Can Do

In the functional sense, robotic pets behave and respond much like real pets do. Joy for All’s Golden Pup is equipped with both sensors and speakers that allow it to respond to motion and touch.

It responds to your voice and its heartbeat, coat, and sounds are highly realistic. The Joy for All cats operate the same way, and their purr sounds and feels like a real purring cat. These pets are designed to have realistic movements, too.

The Tombot Puppy features touch sensors all over her body, so she will react to how and where she is touched. A free smartphone app allows you to name the puppy and customize its interactions and commands.

The puppy uses voice activation software, so she’ll react to commands like “Speak.” She’s also equipped with recordings from a 12-week-old Labrador puppy to make her sound hyper-realistic. In developing the puppy, Tombot worked with artists at Jim Henson’s Creature Shop for their expertise in technology, fabrics, and animatronics to create highly lifelike behaviors and expressions. The Tombot Puppy is in production now and should ship next year.

The Benefits of Robotic Pets in Senior Care Facilities

Robotic pets can offer seniors many advantages:

For seniors with dementia, robotic pets can have a lifechanging effect. “Peer-reviewed research shows that when a senior can form a robust attachment to an animal, object like a baby doll, or a stuffed animal, they’re able to get a great deal of relief from loneliness. Robotic pets relieve seniors with dementia from anxiety, anger, hallucinations, and even reduce the need for medications,” explains Stevens.

But one of the most important benefits may be the pets’ ability to help seniors battle loneliness. “We’ve been focused on the epidemic of loneliness and isolation well before the pandemic,” explains Fischer. “I think the pandemic has put a hyper focus on this epidemic. All of the measures put in place to protect older adults also serve to further isolate them.” Robotic pets give residents a friend to interact with, play with, and enjoy.

Juliet Holt Klinger, Dementia Care Expert, Brookdale Senior Living

Feedback on Robotic Pets

Juliet Holt Klinger, Dementia Care Expert at Brookdale Senior Living, has seen firsthand how robotic pets can enhance quality of life for residents with dementia. “We were early adopters of this technology at Brookdale and helped develop a use case for the pets within a dementia care environment,” explains Klinger.

“I had trepidation about the use of the pets at first because I have always tried to keep all experiences in our Clare Bridges (memory care communities) to be real, but once we piloted the pets and I saw the residents’ responses, I was convinced.

“Overall, our residents, staff and family love the robotic pets! What’s great about these pets is that they are very portable, and can be brought out when they’re needed most, staff and volunteers can use them, and it helps them have positive interactions with residents.

“Many of the residents are fully aware that the pets are not real, but truly get a kick out of the responsiveness and how they respond to touch like a real pet,” says Klinger.

“Although the pets do not replace human or real pet connection in any way, they do provide companionship and a lot of joy. Not all residents can handle the rigors of having a live pet with them in their apartment and the robotic pets fill a gap. We frequently say it’s all of the love and none of the litterbox,” Klinger explains.

Tracy Spallone, LifeStories Director, Newhaven Court Senior Living Community

While Tracy Spallone, LifeStories Director at Newhaven Court Senior Living Community in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, has only been using a robotic pet when working with residents with dementia for a week, she’s already seen differences in residents.

“I have seen firsthand from a previous resident who had a robotic pet how impactful and calming they are,” explains Spallone. “Our residents are loving our newest addition to LifeStories, a robotic puppy. He barks, pants, opens and closes his eyes, turns his head toward your voice, and wags his tail.”

The puppy has provided residents with many benefits in just a week’s time. Spallone notes that the puppy gives residents comfort and companionship and a sense of security. It has a calming and stress-relieving effect and prompts residents to reminisce of pets that they once had.

“It brings them a moment of joy and it gives them a sense of purpose, which is, taking care of the pet,” says Spallone. Spallone has noted a decrease in negative emotions, and the puppy gives residents something to “show off” to team members.

With COVID-19 limiting social interaction, robotic pets can provide much-needed companionship and entertainment. However, these pets were already playing an important role in senior care before the pandemic, and we’re likely to see more facilities use robotic pets as awareness of their benefits spreads.

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