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Can robot dogs replace therapy animals?

We all who live with dogs know how they benefit us. The most important among them are companionship, love, affection, and a sense of calm and happiness. Numerous research projects have examined these real, measurable effects and have clearly demonstrated the positive effects dogs have on our health and wellbeing.

Recently, some in the healthcare world are taking it a step further and exploring the benefits that robotic animals can have for the elderly. Research has shown that this traditionally isolated social group can find great comfort in a robotic pet. Although sometimes costly, they have been shown to reduce stress and anxiety, and reduce the need for pain and behavioral medications.

In her column “The New Old Age” of September 26, 2020 in the New York Times, Paula Span addressed this phenomenon:

Long before the pandemic, loneliness and social segregation were recognized as public health issues for the elderly, associated with measurably poorer mental and physical health. Now, their risk of developing serious illness from the coronavirus has denied many seniors the suggestion and convenience of personal visits, cultural events, volunteering, and even grocery shopping.

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“Covid created a bizarre world where no one could hug anyone,” said Laurie Orlov, a senior industry analyst and founder of the Aging and Health Technology Watch newsletter. “The idea of ​​a pet to keep – a tactile experience – goes a little further.”

Difficult times often inspire innovation, and a handful of institutions – including hospitals, nursing homes, and assisted living facilities – have adopted robotic animals as companions for their patients. Since the Food and Drug Administration classifies the robot as a biofeedback device, Medicare handles the purchase and use by therapists. (We’re not sure if this affects real live therapy pets. If it doesn’t, it should.)

In one study, patients mated to a robotic pet were monitored for a period of six months. Staff reported that the robots – “given names and festive outfits during the holidays – helped calm residents, improve their social behavior, and improve their mood and appetite.”

At the top end is the PARO Therapeutic Robot (above), a popular model from Japan that mimics a baby harp seal in appearance and behavior, priced at $ 6,120.

The seal pup has sensors that register touch, light, sound, temperature and posture and can perceive people and the environment. For example, its PARO light sensor enables light and darkness to be detected. The tactile sensor enables the robot to respond to stroking and holding the posture sensor. Its audio sensor enables it to recognize language directions and words such as names, greetings and praise.

A much cheaper (and simpler) device costs between $ 65 and $ 130 and is made by Ageless Innovation, a Hasbro spin-off. They offer dogs and cats that look very similar to traditional plush toys, but are specially developed and marketed for families who are “looking for attractive products that promote meaningful connections through play, joy and happiness …”. These battery-powered pets have built-in sensors and speakers that the devices can interact with on a basic level. Features include a calming heartbeat, lifelike fur, and authentic barking sounds that respond to the human voice.

Robotic pet companions were originally tested with adults diagnosed with dementia. The idea was that those with reduced cognitive capacity would accept the robots as real animals. A 2017 randomized controlled trial evaluating the effectiveness of PARO pets in these individuals found the animatronic seals to be helpful for those involved, including their families and the facilities they looked after.

Later, when studies were conducted with seniors who were not similarly impaired but suffered from loneliness, positive results were also reported. It seems that a beneficial relationship with a robotic pet doesn’t require a floating sense of reality.

These relationships were compared to the relationship one had as a child with a favorite doll or plush toy – which for many served as a beloved companion, confidante and source of comfort.

Despite their growing popularity and positive feedback, they have their critics, as noted in The Times:

Sherry Turkle, a psychologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has long studied how the elderly use technology. “The promise is that it will become a companion and you will have a relationship with it,” she said of a robotic animal. “As if there is reciprocity. There is no reciprocity. It’s a couple of bits and bytes. “

Then there is Sister Imelda Maurer with years of experience in the care of the elderly, who dislikes deceiving people with dementia and mistaking robots for real pets. “There is an element of ethical dishonesty,” she said.

Both Maurer and Turkle point out that enthusiasm for robots highlighted the many shortcomings in the way our society cares for the elderly, whether in understaffed facilities or isolated homes.

Most people have recognized the value of therapeutic visiting dogs, many of which have been rescued from animal shelters and specially trained to work as therapy dogs. While the practice has grown steadily, the need unfortunately exceeds the supply of volunteers. As long as this is the case, robot pets may be the next best thing.

While some see it as a step toward further reliance on machines and computers for emotional wellbeing, the positive results are difficult to argue with. They can be a valuable tool in the face of the growing and increasingly difficult social and medical challenge of providing quality care to our elderly population.

Have you experienced positive or negative effects from a robotic animal interacting with a family member or friend? We’d love to hear from you about it!

Photo credit

Courtesy of Joy for All / Ageless Innovation Facebook (top, bottom)

Courtesy of parorobots.com (center)

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