Depression is a commonly diagnosed health concern in the elderly part of the American population, and one way to treat this problem is to give elderly patients pets. Having an animal to love and provide for gives purpose and joy to many elders, who often experience grief, loss, and serious health complications. Studies have shown that patients are more likely to recover and recover quickly if they have a companion pet, and that depression and anxiety are lessened by the presence of a pet. But for some elders, a real live animal is not a possibility; allergies, assisted living or nursing home facility restrictions, or cognitive issues such as dementia limit their ability to house, train, and care for a dog or cat.

The Biggest Names in the Biz

Here comes the adorable solution to this very serious problem: a robotic cat. Created by Hasbro as a part of a larger initiative to go beyond play in toys to address serious issues, the toy feels real. It purrs, meows, and even reacts to light by yawning and sleeping! (How cute!) It doesn't necessarily replicate a real cat (it is made of metal inside, after all, so it isn't soft and squishy like a real cat's belly), but it can halt the creeping loneliness that many elders feel as they age.

...treat depression and loneliness...

Hasbro's cat joins Paro, a robotic seal designed by a Japanese company (and discussed on the Netflix original show Master of None), as the Big Two in robotic pet therapy. Paro is actually a medical device and not intended to be a toy at all, unlike Hasbro's expanded line of robotic dogs and cats. The United Kingdom has begun using Paro in hospitals and under their National Health System to treat depression and loneliness, especially in the case of patients with Alzheimer's and dementia.

Ways to Use Robotic Pets

Beyond just providing a physical, fluffy comfort, robotic pets have far-reaching applications. For those experiencing memory loss, a fluffy companion may remind them of former pets or friendly animal interactions; it may help those who have discomfort with social interaction, such as autistic patients, self-soothe and become more comfortable in social situations. The presence of a robo-pet may simply help seniors start conversations with each other in assisted living or nursing home facilities, which combats loneliness and depression by establishing social bonds.

Anecdotal evidence shows that some patients can use the robotic pet in place of medication. Some caregivers say it helps patients focus, relax, and stay engaged in tasks when they might otherwise be anxious, agitated, or start to wander.

Robotic pets are not a treatment for all seniors, nor at they a cure-all for loneliness, depression, or dementia symptoms. It seems, however, that some seniors truly respond well to robotic pets.

The Criticism

There is a significant voice that opposes the use of robots to cure what many see as social issues. Some believe that using machines to replace human social interactions is dangerous and is giving in to a larger cultural trend to interact electronically rather than in person. Others see using robots on the elderly as a way to continue to warehouse older people away in institutions with fewer qualms about not integrating them into social or family networks.

Robots are also very expensive, and they come with a host of technical difficulties. Paro comes in at $6,000, and still needs to be charged and maintained at the cost of the user. Replacing a broken or malfunctioning Paro is not cheap or easy, especially as having one may be the result of a medical need and therefore have to be funded through insurance and/or a prescription. Even the Hasbro cat comes in at $99, which could be an obstacle on a tight budget.

Conclusion

Overall, it appears that robotic pets are a viable option for some seniors, but do not work for all. It is worth discussing the option with your loved one's doctor and other caregivers, especially if the financial cost is manageable. Finding a companion that requires little maintenance but can provide comfort is an especially viable option for seniors experiencing dementia, since the pet does not need much daily care and can fulfill needs without creating messes or requiring very active physical involvement.

Sources

Bailey, Brandon. (August 4, 2014). Meet Paro, a robot designed to help the elderly. San Jose Mercury News. Available at http://www.mercurynews.com/business/ci_26258460/robotic-pets-seniors-part-wave-assistive-technology. Retrieved February 5, 2016.

BBC News. Meet the robotic cat for the elderly. Available at https://curotrak.com/eldercare-caregiver-community/parents-care-blog/item/4713-meet-the-robotic-cat-for-the-elderly-bbc-news. Retrieved February 5, 2016.

Brenoff, Ann. (December 19, 2015). Toy Cat Robots May Be Just the Thing for Lonely Seniors. Available at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/toy-cat-robots-might-be-the-answer-to-senior-loneliness_us_564e0ee1e4b08c74b734c9b9. Retrieved February 5, 2016.

Friedmann, Erika, Katcher, Aaron Honori, Lynch, James J., Thomas, Sue Ann. Animal Companions and One-Year Survival of Patients after Discharge from a Coronary Care Unit. Public Health Rep. 1980 Jul-Aug; 95(4): 307-312.Available at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1422527/pdf/pubhealthrep00128-0003.pdf. Retrieved February 5, 2016.

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