Robopets: Care home residents with dementia find comfort and joy in robotic pets during pandemic

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Staff have also been trained to treat the robots as they would a real animal in front of residents with dementia.

Robotic cats and dogs have provided comfort and joy to care home residents with dementia while they have been unable to see their families during the coronavirus outbreak, a care charity has said.

Methodist Homes (MHA), which supports 19,600 residents and members living in 90 specialist care homes, 70 retirement living schemes and 62 community groups, started trialling robotic cats made by Hasbro offshoot Joy For All in three of its homes in October last year.

The life-size cat robot, which purrs, nuzzles its head into the hand of the person stroking it and rolls onto its back for a tummy rub, is battery-powered and costs around £105.

Residents who weren’t “cat people” were given a £120 robotic golden retriever puppy, which has a simulated heartbeat, responds to motion and touch and barks when spoken to.

There is some research evidence supporting the benefits. A 2019 study from the University of Exeter found that robotic animals can help to reduce loneliness and agitation in care home residents, while the largest-ever study examining the use of robots in care for older people published last month claimed competent robots could “significantly improve” residents’ mental health.

Other reports suggest therapeutic robotic animals have similar positive effects to live pet therapy for individuals living with dementia, which has also been found to reduce blood pressure and improve social and psychological functioning.

David Moore, MHA’s dementia lead, said the charity had recognised how enormously successful the robotic pets had been and when faced with the possibility that many of its residents would need to self-isolate during the early stages of the outbreak, organised a dementia appeal in the spring to raise money to purchase more robopets.

“We were lucky enough to raise a substantial amount of money and that went towards purchasing a number of these robotics animals for our residents,” he told i.

“We knew we would need to keep our residents occupied and interested, and in particular for people who have been bed-bound and who respond well to the robots, it’s meant they’ve had some comfort.

“Because of Covid the robots have become even more important, especially for those who couldn’t see their families and didn’t really understand what was going on with regards to speaking to them over iPads or the telephone.”

The pandemic had been “particularly tough” for people with dementia, Mr Moore said, adding that the group felt “more prepared to stand up to the government than we were before.

“It’s still not easy for people, but we’re working with families to do the best we can, particularly for those who have experienced a negative impact on their mental or physical health.”

MHA held a day of remembrance last month for the 400 residents and three members of staff who died during the early months of the outbreak.

The charity now has more than 100 robotic animals across its care homes and while it tries to ensure every resident who responds well to them has one, staff know to clean the fur of robots that may be passed between residents in a social setting like a home’s lounge.

Treating the robots as if they were real

Staff have also been trained to treat the robots as they would a real animal in front of residents with dementia, including avoiding putting it in a cupboard or removing its batteries.

“If somebody’s becoming distressed and we know that they like cats or dogs, we’d give them one of the robots. Some of the residents realise they’re not real but they still get comfort from them, while others believe they really are real,” he said.

“We’ve trained the staff to treat the cats as real cats because if they picked up a robot incorrectly or held it by its tail, it could upset the residents who think of them as real. It helps these them to feel like they’re looking after something else.”

While some of MHA’s homes have their living pets, including cats, dogs, budgerigars and guinea pigs, real animals may prove too overwhelming for some people who still want the comfort of having something to hold. If a confused resident threw a robot – or as happened in one case, tried to flush one down the toilet – there’s no risk to a living creature, Mr Moore explained.

“The robots have gone down better than I ever thought they would. They’re incredibly cheap for what they are and I presume that the technology will get better over time.

“There’s been a lot of delight and smiles – for something I was sceptical about after seeing robotic pets at a conference last year, I’m glad to be proven wrong. It’s very interesting to watch how people respond to them and treat them like real cats. The enjoyment is great to see.”

Experimenting with Alexa to reduce stress

MHA’s homes have also been experimenting with Amazon’s AI powered smart speakers, which it’s found helpful in managing some resident’s behaviours, he said.

“Asking Alexa to play certain pieces of music to calm them down has been really beneficial. If someone’s distressed, playing their favourite song will often reduce that,” he explained.

“It works well for the residents who understand it, but others may find a voice coming out of nowhere a bit frightening. You have to work out what’s appropriate for each person.”

(Article source: Inews)

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