Pet Therapy is not exactly a new idea in the aged care space, but over the last few years, there has been a definite increase in the number of aged care facilities that have begun to incorporate the love and companionship of animals as a way to stimulate residents and combat issues of loneliness and social isolation.

Animals can provide a sense of both joy and companionship to older people who are lonely, and it has been proven that interacting with animals also have a profound impact on the lives of elderly people who are living with dementia. 

Over the last few years, we have seen a number of aged care providers give their residents the chance to interact with animals ranging from cats, dogs, and rabbits, through to a rural aged care facility that brings in miniature horses because most of their residents grew up on farms.

Although the benefits of this practice are quite clear, the fact remains that organising and ensuring the safety of both the animals and the residents requires a lot of attention, and this can make it difficult to provide animals to interact with residents on a regular basis.

Initially, the thought of robotic pets might just sound like a poor alternative to a real pet, but when you take a close look at the effect that they are still able to have on residents and throw in the fact that they are safer and can be readily available, it’s not hard to understand why robotic pets have quickly become a respectable feature of aged care providers rather than a throwaway gimmick.

Griffith University Professor, Wendy Moyle, is an expert in Alzheimer’s and has spent years studying the effects of the interaction between aged care residents and an adorable robotic seal that goes by the name of Paro.

Paro the Seal has voice recognition and light sensors which allows Paro to move and respond to touch, learn to respond to names, and react positively to petting by moving its tail and paws; and Wendy was nice enough to share her thoughts on the subject of Paro and other robotic pets with HelloCare.

“We chose a seal as it is a neutral animal, ie. people do not have prior experience with a seal and therefore no negative experience of a seal. They usually look at it with fascination and ask questions in relation to what the animal is. So it is a sense of discovery that also raises interest for the person,” said Wendy.

“Robotic pets can be very helpful for people with cognitive impairment, ie dementia (memory loss) who may forget to feed, hygiene or toilet live pets. We found in our studies that most people react positively to the robotic pets particularly to those that they don’t have a negative memory about, ie a dog that has bitten them for example.”

It is estimated that there are currently 425,000 Australians living with dementia, and finding ways to combat issues of agitation and aggression that can often be symptoms of living with dementia has always proved difficult.

Wendy has gone on record as saying that her research showed that interacting with Paro had a ‘modest but significanteffect on reducing agitation in residents living with dementia, and that robot pets are most suitable for people living with early to mid-stage dementia who are without severe agitated behaviours.

“Robotic pets are likely to benefit older people who are lonely and socially isolated and older people who are depressed or who have dementia. They can help bring comfort and opportunity to talk with the robotic pet. They also bring pleasure, improve mood and can reduce anxiety,” said Wendy.

While the technology that is used to make Paro interactive is extremely impressive, it certainly comes with a hefty price tag – Paro is available to buy, but costs around $8,500, which is one of the reasons that you are more likely to find Paro in a residential aged care environment rather than a family home.

There is a range of alternatives that are well suited to a family home that are not as advanced as Paro but still offer a sense of interaction with a much more family-friendly price tag.

The Hasbro Companion Pet Range offers a variety of cute and cuddly cats and dogs that range in price from $50-$300 AUS and still have the ability to brighten the mood and stimulate the mind of an elderly person living with dementia at home.

 

While nothing will ever replace the true sense of companionship and meaningful interaction that comes with having relationships with real people and animals, robotic pets can obviously play a part in improving the emotional wellbeing of elderly people who are spending significant time alone.

And anything that has the ability to brighten the day of an elderly person who would otherwise be should be a welcome addition to any home or aged care environment.

 

Anyone interested in being involved in robotic research can contact Professor Wendy Moyle on 07 3735 5526 or via email at w.moyle@griffith.edu.au

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