Animatronic pets at retirement homes a sign of how robots will contribute to our lives

Mary Thompson sits in a hallway at Glen Meadows Retirement Community, staring aimlessly. Since she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's around six years ago, it's been difficult to get the 86-year-old to interact with others, her son Mark Thompson said. Most of her sentences don't make sense and she doesn't talk much. But place Henry — a robotic cat — in her lap, and her whole demeanor begins to change.

"Oh, you're so sweet," she says as she pets his white and tan fur lovingly. The cat vibrates with purrs and moves his head and paws if he's cleaning himself. He occasionally blinks and rolls onto his back so that Mary can touch his belly, and in between rubs, Henry, who responds to touch, lets out a series of loud meows — just like a real cat. Mary looks up with joyful surprise.

Mark Thompson, 49, calls it a moment of clarity.

"I think she sensed there was a real cat in her lap, and she was actually talking to it, and for those moments, it seemed to make her happy and I think it helped stimulate her," he said, adding that she used to own cats before coming to live at Glen Meadows, in Glen Arm.

Community life director Heather Kennedy added that there's some interaction when a person sits and talks with Mary "human-to-human," but "it's not as deep as when you hand her the cat," she said.

Kennedy purchased the cat version of Hasbro's Joy for All Companion Pet online for $100 in November, joining other retirement communities across the world in the trend of incorporating robot companions into elderly care in hopes of improving residents' quality of life. Some data show that robots can elicit the same feelings many have toward their real pets without the everyday responsibilities of caring for them. Experts say robotic pets are just another sign of how robots will contribute to the daily lives of humans — but others are adamant that robotics will never replace human or animal contact.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has long described the health benefits of having a real pet — the possibility of decreasing blood pressure and cholesterol levels, while increasing opportunities for exercise and socialization — but more recent studies show that robot companions can yield comparable therapeutic effects.

According to a 2013 study published in the Journal of Post-Acute and Long-Term Care Medicine, researchers at the University of Auckland in New Zealand found that residents who interacted with Paro, a robotic seal developed by a Japanese company, experienced a significant decrease in loneliness after a 12-week period. Those who did not, however, experienced an increase in loneliness. A real dog that was also introduced into the experiment had a similar impact to the robot, but according to the study, residents touched and talked to and about the robot more than the dog.

Dr. Mattan Schuchman is medical director of Johns Hopkins Home-Based Medicine as well as a geriatrician and clinical associate in Hopkins' division of geriatrics and gerontology. He said some home-bound senior patients "get a lot of comfort from having their pet, a cat or the dog, most of the time, as a companion throughout the day. Social isolation is a very common problem among older adults and having a pet is a really wonderful way to [combat that]."

With a robotic pet, "I think that it's probably unlikely to provide that same level of emotional connection that I think people benefit from," he said, but he sees the convenience.

"Many of my older patients, especially with dementia, probably won't be able to take a pet on their own," he said, especially when it comes to exercising or feeding them. In the end, Schuchman said comfort is one of the most important things for people with dementia.

"Anything that brings someone joy is important."

Kennedy, who purchased the cat after several residents requested a live pet in the community, said Henry has been a valuable asset, so much so that they hope to buy another — perhaps the dog version for the residents who don't like cats, Kennedy said. Staff has scheduled the robotic cat for individual and group visits during the week, allowing residents to play with him.

"We get a lot of personal interactions with people who don't necessarily come out of their rooms or don't necessarily interact in group programs," she said, adding that the cat has been especially useful for residents with memory deficits like dementia or Alzheimer's disease, some who cannot distinguish whether Henry is a real cat or not.

"With Henry, it's nice because we can have the residents hold them and they'll just sit there and interact with him," she said. "There's no step by step instructions. It's an informal interaction."

Anne Dongarra, a resident at Glen Meadows, intently pets Henry in the retirement community's lobby.

"If you rub her like this, she'll purr. You hear that?" said Dongarra. "Listen to her, she's purring. ... You're going to meow at me now, huh?"

"I've had a cat all my life. I had one when I was a baby. Its name was Winky," she said.

When asked about why she likes Henry, she responds simply: "A pet's a good thing to have."

Ted Fischer, vice president of business development at Hasbro, said he saw powerful reactions among groups when doing initial research for the Joy for All Companion Pets.

"We'd go into a community, and there'd be folks sitting around a table. Some may have been sleeping, but then we'd open up a box and put one of the companion dogs or cats on the table and their faces changed," Fischer said. "They can't believe they're barking and meowing, and we'd witness the conversations start to change."

Fischer said the choice to begin producing the animals in 2015 was in response to the lack of focus on "the joy, happiness and play in the aging space" and the realization that at least 15 percent of online reviewers were purchasing Hasbro's previous versions of animatronic toys for aging loved ones, not children.

Alec Ross, Baltimore author of the best-selling book "Industries of the Future," said the Companion Pets and other robotics are the future. Places like Japan, which has robots "that will literally take grandparents out of the bathtub and entertain them by playing the violin," are already far ahead of the curve, he said.

"It's really within the last year or two that robotic pets have come into the United States. Because they're very expensive, they have typically been used as a part of therapy, memory recovery or other things," he said, but the robots will become more sophisticated over the next five years.

"The cost will go substantially down. By 2022, you'll have a robotic pet, 15 to 100 times more sophisticated than today's and will cost 10 percent as much," said Ross, and with the growth of artificial intelligence, Ross predicts a more vital application of robot companions, like robots that can sense if an elderly person has fallen and call 911, or send a distress signal if an elderly person is not waking up.

Nothing on the U.S. market resembles "Westworld" — yet. But the Companion Pets are joining a growing landscape of robots that already includes the Roomba robot vacuum cleaner and the Nanda Clocky — a rolling alarm clock with an anthropomorphic face.

Juliet Holt Klinger, senior director of dementia care and programs of Brookdale Senior Living, said the company plans to roll out companion pets to more of its retirement communities. Currently, more than 100 of its 1,055 retirement locations around the country, including locations in Towson, Hagerstown and Olney, have the companion cats and dogs, which Holt Klinger said have been a soothing and calming addition, especially for those with anxiety, she said.

"They really help our residents to access those nurturing emotions and feelings that perhaps they had for a past pet," she said, but they do not replace regular pets.

"We see it as an adjunct," she said. "Live pets are still a big part of what I do. These [robots] don't necessarily replace live pets, but we've seen that it's been helpful for those residents that are a little more advanced in their dementia or found difficulty in taking care of pets."

And unlike real cats or dogs, "they stay in a person's lap for as long as they'll have them," she said with a laugh.

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