Creature comforts

At the Hebrew Home in Riverdale, New York, the cat purrs when you stroke its fur, rolls over to receive a tummy rub, blinks as it grooms its face and meows if you turn out the lights. But it never sheds hair on the furniture and never needs a litter box.

Robotic animal therapy is part of a growing adoption of high-tech engagement tools across senior environments to soothe dementia agitation and provide comforting cuddles—without the inconvenience and unpredictability of a real animal.

Hasbro is best known as a toy company, but its new Joy For All product line is designed specifically for older adults who often battle isolation and loneliness, especially at night when a real therapy pet isn’t normally available. The idea came from a subtle shift in the consumer market: People began to purchase the robotic animals for an aging parent, not just for the kids.

The Joy For All products include a cat and a puppy, both of which use sophisticated reactive robotics to “interact” with humans. The cat makes 32 different sounds and responds to changes in light and touch. Just like a real cat, its behavior response patterns are random.

The puppy reacts to sound and touch and even has a heartbeat that can be felt. It responds to voices, excitedly “barking back” in a sort of interaction. The sensors on its back react to touch and the tail wags in classic puppy happiness.

The robotic pets won a Dementia SMART award from the Dementia Society of America and are gaining popularity in senior living settings. The Hebrew Home has purchased dozens of the pets. Brookdale participated in concept testing and uses the pets at many of its skilled nursing facilities. While Hasbro doesn’t make medical or therapeutic claims, customers say the technology has had positive impacts on residents, especially in memory care settings as an alternative to behavioral medications, says Ted Fischer, Hasbro’s vice president of Business Development.

Why not just use a traditional plush animal? It’s the movement and the reactive behavior that create the realism, Fischer says. Developing the animatronic pets took plenty of study and help from nursing homes and assisted living communities. “We worked with senior living communities to help us do some concept testing. It’s folks who are living it every day who have seen how to best use the product in that setting, and the impact has been incredibly gratifying for us.”

Part of the challenge is to position the animatronic pets as tools to combat loneliness and provide companionship, while keeping the price affordable. For Hasbro, that meant skipping the toy aisles and selling the robotic pets in the health and wellness departments—and keeping the price around $100. “Then we sent a sample to 50 different senior living sites with a letter that said, ‘This is Hasbro’s new product. It’s focused on happiness, joy and companionship. Please share it with your staff and your residents and let us know what you think.’’’

Other developers have put a machine learning spin on the pet therapy concept. AIST, a Japanese company with U.S. headquarters in Itasca, Illinois, has created a robotic harp seal called Paro that memorizes a person’s voice and will turn to look at them when they speak.

The plush-covered robot has the heft and soulful brown eyes of the real animal. The robotics include five kinds of sensors: tactile, light, audio, temperature and posture. Its sensors recognize the difference between day and night. It lifts its head and makes eye contact when it’s spoken to, and makes an orchestra of coos and squeaks when touched.

Legend Senior Living, headquartered in Wichita, Kansas, inherited the seal therapy program when it acquired a senior living community that was conducting a pilot study on the technology’s effectiveness. The program includes specific staff training in the use of the seal robot and detailed individual and group therapy sessions with select residents who are receptive to pet therapy.

The “Utilization of Robotic Pets in Dementia Care” study, published in 2016 in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, showed that residents who participated in treatment sessions with the therapy seal were happier, more relaxed and slept better. Pulse rates dropped and pulse oximetry improved when the seal was used. The study group saw a 6.8 percent reduction in antidepressants and a 10 percent reduction in pain medications over a three-month period.

“One of our goals is to reduce the dependence on medication,” says Chris Mahen, Legend’s Chief Operating Officer. “Reducing anxiety and stress through this type of therapy creates a better environment for the individual to live in. The residents’ interaction and engagement with our staff and associates is much more positive.”

At $7,000 plus training costs, the seal isn’t cheap—but it is considered the most individualized animatronic pet therapy product on the market to date. “This isn’t a $7,000 toy,” Mahen explains. “It’s a sophisticated robot that knows who is holding it and how it is being treated. It can memorize your speech and your speech patterns. It can remember you as an individual and react based on how you interact with it. As a bio feedback device, it knows when you touch it and how you are touching it based on your pressure and where you are touching it, like on its tail, its back, its eyes or eye lashes.”

The depth of the individualized experience taps into the human need for connection, explains Geoffrey Lane, PhD, a Palo Alto, California psychologist who uses the Paro seal with veterans and those with PTSD. “People are able to connect with this robot,” he says in an interview on KALW public radio. “It’s designed to behave in a way so that you want to touch it, you want to pet it, you want to interact with it. People have the same reaction that they do to any other cute animal or cute baby.”

Advanced robotics has given senior care providers a new way to offer the therapeutic benefits of animal therapy without the unpredictability of real animals, which can become uncooperative, trigger allergies, bite, shed or leave tokens behind on the carpet. Most of all, it’s realism with 24/7 availability, unlike a live animal who is only around for short periods of time and certainly isn’t available to calm a 3 a.m. episode of agitated wandering.

As for Hasbro’s cat, however, the designers did choose to skip a few key elements of realism, Fischer says. “We left out the look of distain and the claws.”

Topics: Activities , Alzheimer's/Dementia , Articles