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Robotic pets with fluffy coats and lifelike eyes are finding a market as elder care companions.

A far cry from the hard-shelled mechanical pets of the early 2000s, these more realistic “care bots” are providing companionship to nursing home residents — a population known to experience loneliness and isolation.

The benefits of robotic pets for elder care may extend far beyond comfort and quality of life. One study found that therapy treatments with a robotic seal led to reduced medication use, better sleep, and other health improvements in patients with dementia — showing the potential for robotic pets to provide long-term clinical value.

Pet therapy is well-known for comforting people with dementia. Snuggling a four-legged friend brings on a smile, soothes anxiety and encourages physical activity. People connect to memories of their own beloved pets. Can a robotic pet replace the real thing?

An NBC news article says robotic pets may be the next big thing in dementia care. I’m a baby-boomer who didn’t grow up with all the technology we have now. At first I bristled at the idea of robots taking the place of real animals. Or humans  for that matter.

Research has linked animal-assisted therapy to improvements in mood and the quality of life for seniors, including those with dementia. The jury’s still out on whether robotic pets are as effective as their flesh-and-blood counterparts, but a recent review of studies on robopets for dementia patients linked time spent with the robots to lower levels of depression and agitation.

And since they don’t need walks, food or veterinarian visits, cuddly automatons like Tombot are considered a low-maintenance option for people who are no longer able to care for a pet.

“Pets play an important companion role whatever your age,” Andrew Sixsmith, director of the Science and Technology for Aging Research Institute at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia, said in an email. “For some people with dementia, a real pet might not be feasible, so this might help.”

Monica Moreno, a senior director at the Alzheimer’s Association, expressed similar sentiments. “Research around robotic pets and people living with dementia is somewhat limited and far from conclusive, but there is certainly anecdotal evidence to suggest that this kind of interaction may help some people living with moderate to severe Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias,” she said in an email.

Companion robots have been on the market for years. PARO, a doe-eyed seal pup used in nursing homes since the early 2000s, has been shown to calm seniors with its cooing sounds and gently waving flippers. Newer arrivals on the market, like a 2018 reboot of Sony’s beloved Aibo robot dog, come with internet connectivity and facial recognition.

A Growing Field:

Research of therapeutic and assistance robots has emerged in the last decade. Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia are on the rise world-wide. With it comes greater need for creative approaches to ease  behavioral reactions so common in people living with dementia.  Consequently, robotic pets may well be a valuable tool for caregivers.

In conclusion, do you have experience with robotic pets? What do you think of the idea?

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