A cat next to a robot

Robotic pets can improve memory care, according to research

Image credit: Foto 106543490 © Colicaranica | Dreamstime.com

University of Utah researchers use robotic pets to help care for older adults suffering from dementia.

Robotic pets could provide support in therapy sessions with patients suffering from dementia, research finds. 

In a paper published in the Canadian Journal of Recreation Therapy, University of Utah researcher Rhonda Nelson and graduate student Rebecca Westenskow describe a new protocol for using robotic pets with older adults with dementia. The protocol uses a low-cost robotic pet, establishes ideal session lengths, and identifies common participant responses to the pets to aid in future research.

The animals used in the sessions are robotic pets with synthetic fur and programmed movements and sounds. The robots are able to recreate the feeling of holding live animals while also avoiding their unpredictability. 

“Our protocol had questions like: Would you like to scratch the dog behind his ears? Would you like to pet him? Would you like to brush him?” said Nelson, an assistant professor in the Department of Occupational and Recreational Therapies. “And then we were evaluating how people responded to those different cues so that we could then provide some guidelines to people on how to have the most beneficial actions with these animals.”

Robotic tabby cat

Robotic tabby cat / Joy for All Companion Pets/ Ageless Innovation

Image credit: Joy for All Companion Pets/ Ageless Innovation

The benefits of the use of animals for therapeutic purposes have been well established in the literature. However, while live animals were unpredictable and potentially dangerous for patients (due to unpredictable behaviours or allergic reactions), robotic pets have often been too expensive an alternative for most therapists. 

In 2015 Ageless Innovation launched a line of Joy for All Companion pets, priced at under $150, demonstrating that the widespread use of robotic pets as therapy “animals” was within reach.

Since then, researchers have increasingly studied how people with dementia interact with robotic pets, but, according to Nelson, no one had developed a unified protocol that would give assisted living staff a plan to gain the most benefit from the pets’ use through directed interaction.

“There was very little information on what people were doing with the pets,” Nelson said. “So without that guidance, it’s just a toy. And what do you do with it?”

In order to develop such a protocol, the researchers met with five people between 82 and 87 years old living in long-term care facilities who experienced severe cognitive impairment, and examined their interactions with robotic dogs or cats.  

“Many participants leaned toward the [robotic pet] as it was taken out of the pet carrier,” the researchers noted, “then instinctively reached for it and began petting, rubbing or scratching the pet when first introduced.”

Throughout the session, the researchers asked questions, both about the participants’ experiences with past pets and about interacting with the current robotic pet. The robotic pets moved and made sounds, which Nelson says helped the participants engage with them.

“When the dog would bark they would say things like, ‘Oh, are you trying to tell me something?’” she said. “Or they would comment on the cat purring and would say things like, ‘Wow, you must really be happy! I feel you purring.’ One of the activities that people responded to the most was brushing the animals.”

In one case, though, the session proceeded in silence. The participant had difficulty communicating their thoughts but stayed focused on the robotic dog throughout. By the end of the session, the participant seemed to develop a connection with the robotic animal, saying “I like that dog. When he likes me.”

In another instance, one participant didn’t like the sounds the pet made, which was easily remedied by turning off the sound, something that would not be an option for a live animal. 

When asked about whether the participants with cognitive decline understood that the robotic pets are not alive, she said they all seemed aware that it was not a live animal, with one of the participants being a trained veterinarian. 

“We would never tell somebody that it was live if they asked," Nelson said. "We would be honest with them. We usually introduce it as ‘Would you like to hold my dog’ and people react to it or respond to it in a way that’s meaningful for them.”

The study's results showed that all participants enjoyed the activity, often choosing to communicate with the pet. Moreover, the study found that, due to the fact that people in long-term facilities are often surrounded by people that provide for them, they find it comforting to step into the role of caregiver. 

“I think is also psychologically very comforting for people to feel like, even though they know that it’s not live, they’re the person who’s giving love and compassion to something, and it’s responding,” said Nelson. 

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