Robotic Therapy Animals with Elderly Patients

Updated: Jul 28, 2020

Animals elicit a sense of loving connection

Real Therapy Animals can work wonders. But for situations where that is not possible or practical, a robotic therapy animal has been invented in Japan.

This is particularly valuable with patients with Alzheimer's, dementia, or for people who might be too rough with a real dog or be too fragile to interact with a real animal. We hear the same laughter from people interacting with the robotic versions!

The benefits of Animal Therapy with the elderly population has been well documented.

According to Banks: "Many researchers have found that communication (and interaction) with animals can have a positive effect on older adults by increasing their social behavior and verbal interaction, while also decreasing agitated behavior and loneliness."

But now, the possibilities extend to those who would not be able to interact with live animals. Meet Paro... the robotic therapy animal, who looks like a cute baby seal, bats her eyelashes and responds to petting.

Another study on the effects of Pet Therapy, by Kawamura, et al., published in The Journal of Psychological Nursing, demonstrates numerous benefits:

Interacting with Therapy Dogs increases range of motion, conversation, and interaction.

"This study contributes to the understanding of Animal Assisted Activity...with participants positively influenced. Six themes of interactive relationships (emerged): Positive feelings about the dogs, confidence in oneself, recalling fond memories about dogs (they may have interacted with in their earlier years), a break from the daily routine, more interaction with other residents through the dogs, enhanced communication with the volunteer handler team."

Kawamura further discusses the positive encounters with the dogs, who are both trained and temperamentally suitable for giving and receiving affection, as having a variety of benefits, such as leading to enriched experiences that break the dull daily routine many residents experience. Interacting with and petting or brushing the dogs encouraged more movement and ambulation. Engaging with the volunteer handling team alleviated boredom, and helped both residents and the staff feel more refreshed.

For staff, it helped to bring smiles and mitigate the effects of compassion fatigue and burnout. And seeing the patients calmer and happier was contagious to all staff.

A Remedy for Loneliness

Feelings of loneliness were abated, as well as anger about the restrictions on their lives inside the facility. Residents tended to talk more to other residents about the positive feelings they were having about the dogs. This gave them a chance to express their feelings, and many had fond memories of pets they previously or as children. This conversation, which had a positive focus, instead of just discussing health issues, led to increased sociability, which was in itself beneficial. As Kawamura states, for many older adults, “It awakened their awareness and interest in themselves, their fellow residents, and their surroundings.”

PARO - The Robot Therapy Animal

Japan has one of the largest aging populations. This is why they have been looking for additional opportunities for Animal Assisted Activities that use live animals. They have begun utilizing these robotic animals, with the aging, which also have many similar beneficial effects as working with live animals. Paro was the first, the cuddly, furry robotic baby seal that flutters its eyebrows and responds to words and gestures. The inventors chose to make a seal rather than a cat or dog since most people don’t have many preconceptions as to what a baby seal should sound or feel like.

Often patients with cognitive decline can become agitated, or even aggressive, and Paro is an alternative to medical sedation. People calm down quickly when interacting with Paro, and there are no side-effects to this cuddle session.

The story of Paro was featured in 2007 on NPR's Radio Lab, in an episode titled “The Fountain of Youth,” which talked about how the artificial intelligence applications allowed the robot to recognize specific people, and Paro could even learn a new name that a patient preferred to call it. Paro could be held, cuddled, petted and fed, and would respond to contact by emitting soothing sounds and other forms of rudimentary responsiveness. The use of a baby-like face that Paro has evokes the same warmth people feel toward puppies, kittens, and other baby animals. Time Magazine online reported that residents in nursing facilities had a tremendously positive response as if interacting with a real animal.

When you're feeling down, why not turn to Paro, the cuddly, furry robotic baby seal? Paro, developed by Japan's National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, is modeled after a Canadian harp seal, recordings of which provide the (sweet) crying noises that Paro makes while it blinks adorably at you under its long robotic eyelashes. The robot responds to petting by moving its tail and opening and closing its eyes.

First exhibited to the public in 2001, Paro is said to have a calming effect on people and is intended for patients of hospitals and nursing homes and dementia patients.

The furry invention is reportedly already in use in nursing facilities in Japan and Denmark. It brings smiles to patients who haven't been smiling and encourages interaction and socialization as it responds to whatever name the patient uses to call him.

There is also a consumer version of Paro, for personal use, a toy, at a fraction of the price, made by Hasbro. One is a cat called Joy for All. While Paro was developed for institutional use, the toy versions may be useful in some individual situations.

So, if you don't have the budget for Paro, the toy version may be suitable for personal use.

Obviously a robotic animal has advantages in that it doesn't need to eat, relieve itself, doesn't need feeding, can't be hurt, and is hypo-allergenic.