Aibo dog robots on display

Robotic pets spark joy in care homes

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University of Exeter researchers have found that robotic pets could benefit older people living in care homes, providing much of the pleasure and comfort of real pets, as well as increasing social activity.

‘Robopets’ are animal-like robots which mimic the appearance and behaviour of companion animals, with the benefit of being hardier and less demanding than real animals. Some robopets have already been used in the healthcare sector; for instance, a fluffy baby seal-like robot called Paro which responds gently to being petted is often used to calm patients with advanced dementia.

In this series of 19 studies, the researchers used Paro and four other robopets: Necoro and Justocat the robotic cats; Aibo the robotic dog, and Cuddler the bear. The robopets were introduced to 900 care home residents, staff and family members.

In some of the studies, the researchers studied how residents interacted with the robopets. In other studies, the researchers measured the impact of the robopets on social interaction with other residents, agitation and loneliness.

“It is not always possible to have a cat or a dog come into a care home, so robopets can offer a good alternative,” said Dr Noreen Orr, co-author the study. “Of course, robopets are no substitute for human interaction, but our research shows that for those who choose to engage with them, they can have a range of benefits. A new wave of more affordable robopets may make them more accessible to care homes.”

The researchers found that while not all the residents liked the robopets, the robopets seemed to provide pleasure and comfort and reduce agitation and loneliness. They also proved a good stimulus for conversation between residents, as well as helping increase interaction with staff and visitors. The findings are published in the International Journal of Older People Nursing.

The researchers have advised that staff training may be necessary in order to help residents get the most out of their robopets, such as by pairing animal-loving residents with robopets mimicking the appearance of their former pets.

“Although not every care home resident may choose to interact with robopets, for those who do, they appear to offer many benefits,” said Dr Rebecca Abbott, lead author of the paper. “Some of these are around stimulating conversations or triggering memories of their own pets or past experiences and there is also the comfort of touching or interacting with the robopet itself. The joy of having something to care for was a strong finding across many of the studies.”

Robots have been proposed as useful tools to assist in the elder care sector, particularly in assisting in routine and impersonal jobs (such as lifting patients with limited mobility) so that care workers are able to focus on personal interaction. The flourishing of the robotics sector in Japan is largely credited to a push to develop technologies to serve the needs of its ageing population.

Caroline Dinenage, the Minister for Care, commented that: “Modern technology has the amazing capacity to improve people’s health and wellbeing and revolutionise the care they receive. Technology can never replace human interaction, but this kind of research is incredibly important to help us assess its benefits.”

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