PEOPLE HELPING PEOPLE

“Love” has wide black eyes, white furry paws, and meows and purrs gently while she is held. The orange tabby brings comfort to older adults with Alzheimer’s or dementia related diseases at The Caregiving Place at Friendship Centers.

But “Love” is not a cat, and her name will likely change tomorrow.

The robotic pet is the next big thing in dementia care, designed to bring comfort, companionship and lower stress for older adults. The Caregiving Place has a robotic dog, cat, and baby that have authentic sounds, motions, and use built in sensors to respond to motion and touch. 

The cat opens and closes its eyes, purrs, lifts its paw, opens it mouth, moves its head and body, and has synthetic, soft, brushable fur. The dog barks, moves, and responds to voices. The baby coos, cries and responds to being rocked and held.

“Every day is different with dementia patients,” says Debbie Morrill, adult day services manager at The Caregiving Place. “After a long day, someone may feel tired and anxious. The robotic pets help relax them and calm their anxiety.”

Friendship Centers does also have pet therapy twice a month, when real animals from the Humane Society of Sarasota County spend time at The Caregiving Place.  But there are several benefits of the robots over a real pet.

“We don’t have to clean a litter box, take them outside, feed them, or take them to a vet,” said Morrill.  “Sometimes our patients who are in more advanced stages of dementia are afraid of a real animal, but they will hold the robots. They can get the benefits of having a pet without having to care for them.”

Morrill encourages family members to look into getting their own robotic pets if they’re interested, and directs them to Amazon to purchase.  The pets cost around $100.

That’s much more affordable than PARO, the $5,000 robotic seal that The Windsor recently brought to visit patients at The Caregiving Place. PARO is an advanced robot developed by AIST, a leading Japanese robotics company.  PARO has five kinds of sensors: tactile, light, audition, temperature, and posture sensors, with which it can perceive people and its environment. It can recognize light and dark, can feel being stroked or held, and can recognize the direction of voice and words such as its name, greetings and praise.

PARO can also learn to behave in a way that the user prefers and respond to new words.  For example, if you stroke it every time you touch it, PARO will remember your previous action and try to repeat that action to be stroked.  If you hit it, PARO remembers its previous action and tries not to do that action.

Staff at Friendship Centers have noticed many benefits from the robots, and regularly include the dog, cat and baby in daily activities.

“It’s amazing how interactive these robots are getting,” said Morrill.  “They aren’t a substitute for other psychosocial group activities and sensory interventions, but they are a great addition to the center, especially for those who love pets.”