Protocol for Using Robotic Pets in Memory Care


Dr. Rhonda Nelson, assistant professor in the Department of Occupational and Recreational Therapies at the University of Utah

Robotic pets are increasing in popularity, particularly when it comes to the benefits they offer seniors. Given that pet therapy has been studied as a treatment for dementia, could there be a role for robotic pets in memory care? A new research paper focuses on that exact topic. 

The study, titled “Evaluation of a Robotic Pet Intervention Protocol for Older Adults with Dementia,” was published in July of 2022. It is authored by Rhonda Nelson, Ph.D., MTRS, CTRS, MT-BC, FDRT, and Rebecca Westenskow. Dr. Nelson is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Occupational and Recreational Therapies at the University of Utah, while Westenskow is a graduate student in the same department. 

About the Study

The study focuses on protocols that caregivers can use to leverage robotic pets as therapeutic devices for adults with dementia. “My research focuses on technology-based recreation interventions that can be used for rehabilitation and health promotion initiatives,” explains Dr. Nelson. “There are so many new products emerging as a result of technological advances that hold potential to be used therapeutically. However, I often encounter health care providers who tell me, ‘That (device/product) is so cool, but I am not sure how I would use it in my professional practice.’ This is where protocols and guidelines for use come in – not only to aid health care providers but also to document the efficacy of such interventions. The product itself is not therapeutic; it is the way it is used that produces specific therapeutic outcomes.” 

Given Dr. Nelson’s experience as a recreational therapist, she recognized that pets are important to many people, but older adults with dementia who are in long-term care facilities often cannot have pets. “This is how I became interested in using robotic pets and providing some guidance to caregivers on how they could introduce and use the pet in a way that was therapeutic to the resident with dementia,” she says. 

Though there are now many robotic pets available, the study focuses on the use of Joy for All Companion Pets. Dr. Nelson explains that when choosing the pets to use for the study, she considered the fact that many robotic pets are very expensive, so it’s not feasible for all facilities to purchase them. “The Joy for All Companion Pets are offered at a price point that many long-term care facilities can afford,” she says. “This was my main reason for selecting this particular product – accessibility to a large number of individuals.” She also notes that the availability of a cat and dog model is beneficial, and these popular pets may also prompt residents to discuss the cats and dogs that they had in their lives. 

The Findings

The study highlights a protocol piloted in the memory care unit of a long-term care facility. A recreational therapy professor facilitated sessions with the pets in residents’ private rooms. Residents engaged in behaviors like petting, holding, brushing, and communicating with the pet, and the facilitator asked questions, repositioned the pet, allowed the resident to interact quietly with the pet, and also provided verbal prompts during each session. The study gathered data on the elements of the session that the participants liked and did not like, and also asked participants to rank their enjoyment of the activity. 

Dr. Nelson explains that while developing the protocol, she did pilot testing at another facility and learned some valuable information about how introducing the pets affected the residents’ perception of them. The pets had been newly purchased, so it was convenient to take them to the facility in the boxes that they had arrived in.

“When we did this, several of the residents perceived the therapist to be a salesperson trying to sell them a product,” she explains. “Once we altered the approach by bringing the robotic pets in a pet carrier used for live animals, the response was totally different and much more positive. People were very excited to see the animal in the carrier and engage with the therapist’s ‘pet.’ It was just a great reminder that small variations in the interaction and protocol can have major consequences in terms of participant response and ultimately the efficacy of the intervention.” 

Potential Use of Robotic Pets in Long-Term Care

Dr. Nelson notes that there are many opportunities for future studies on robotic pets. “The protocol we developed was for use with individuals,” she explains. “One thing we realized is that it would be helpful to explore in greater detail how to best adapt the intervention for individuals with different levels of cognitive decline. I am also very interested in how this protocol could be adapted for small groups of residents, as this could potentially be more time-efficient for staff while simultaneously promoting peer interaction and a sense of community amongst residents.” As for potential uses of robotic pets to support residents with dementia, Dr. Nelson envisions plenty of possibilities. She believes that robotic pets could be used to:

  • Improve mood, happiness, and comfort
  • Increase resident engagement
  • Encourage conversation, socialization, and reminiscing
  • Decrease agitation and anxiety
  • Promote overall quality of life.

“I hope to see additional protocols developed that will help people know how to introduce the robotic pet and structure interactions to best achieve each of these outcomes,” she says. “I have been excited and encouraged by the positive response and interest among health care providers, family members, and the residents themselves. I think we will continue to see increased use of robotic pets with older adults with dementia in the future.”  

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