Robotic Pets: A Senior’s Best Friend?

Robotic Pets: A Senior’s Best Friend?

We are in the midst of a demographic phenomenon known as the graying of society. In more affluent countries, the population is aging. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of Americans aged 65 and older is projected to more than double by 2060. By 2030, 20% of the U.S. population will be over 65 years old. Some other countries, including Italy, Germany, and Japan, are already at this mark.

Kelly Joyce

Kelly Joyce

“People are realizing we are unprepared to have such a broad percentage of our society be comprised of elders,” says Kelly Joyce, a sociologist at Drexel University (right. Credit: Teresa Longo and Steve Otto.). “And it’s not just that people over 65 are increasing, it’s also that the oldest old, those over 85, are increasing. While it is exciting that people are living longer, our society isn’t set up to care for all these people.” This demographic shift, along with a shortage of health care personnel, has led to increasing demand for new technologies that can assist the elderly in their daily lives. One result is a growing menagerie of robotic pets designed to address the companionship needs of older adults. “Robotic pets are part of a continuum of robots that people are working with around aging, especially with elders who have dementia,” says Joyce.

There are a few models of robotic pets available, most of which come from Japan. The most well-known and well-researched of these offerings is PARO (short for “personal robot” in Japanese), a soft seal robot developed by Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology. With its white fur and large puppy-dog eyes, PARO was specifically designed for therapeutic uses with the elderly.

Jennifer Robertson

Jennifer Robertson

“PARO’s inventor, Takanori Shibata, was interested in coming up with a robot that would address the needs of senior citizens, particularly those who were in a depressive cocoon in nursing homes,” says Jennifer Robertson, an anthropologist at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (right. Credit: Jennifer Robertson.). “He thought that this robot with soft fur would provoke conversation among people with senile dementia and depression.” PARO looks like a baby harp seal. It has programmable behavior and a wide array of sensors and actuators that allow it to react and respond to sounds and touch.

“When you’re dealing with senior citizens with some degree of memory or other cognitive impairment, PARO is ideal—it’s an embraceable, novel, animaloid that they can interact with,” says Robertson. “Its recharging plug even looks like a pacifier, making it non-threatening and endearing.”

Cathrine Hasse

Cathrine Hasse

PARO was introduced to Denmark in 2007 as a result of a campaign for welfare technology in nursing care initiated by the Danish Ministry of Science and Ministry of Finance. This political push instigated an experimentation phase and a learning period for the staff in nursing homes, says Cathrine Hasse, an anthropologist at Aarhus University in Denmark (right. Credit: Cathrine Hasse.). “We saw that this technology worked for some persons and not others,” says Hasse. “Some people could sit with it and tell it things and it would respond with little sounds and they would be calm and happy. But for others, PARO would seem like an insult and they became more aggressive. It was up to the staff to find out for whom PARO was a helpful, therapeutic tool.”

Therapy Robots

What are the therapeutic effects for those older adults who view PARO or other robotic pets favorably? Some compare it to animal-assisted therapy, used for many years to calm agitated behavior, ameliorate mood disturbances, and increase the quantity and quality of social interactions in assisted living homes and communities. However, it’s not always possible to bring live animals into these settings due to allergies; risk of injury to patients, staff, or visitors; and the nuisance of cleaning up after the animals. With companion robots, there is no need to feed, walk, or clean up afterwards. They require less care and are more hygienic and predictable than living animals.

Studies on the effects of robotic pets are limited, but some research suggests that PARO and his pals may be effective substitutes for living animals. In one study at a retirement home, researchers found that many residents preferred to touch and interact with PARO over the activities coordinator’s pet Jack Russell terrier. While the dog could choose with whom it interacted, the robot could be placed on the lap of any resident and would respond to that person.

The health benefits of a robotic pet are often said to be similar to those obtained from animal-assisted therapy. Research with PARO or other robotic pets in nursing homes has found that they can alleviate stress and increase immune system response. Companion robots are also reported to increase positive mood and decrease loneliness in some people. In one recent study with dementia patients, spending time with PARO decreased stress and anxiety and resulted in reductions in the use of psychoactive and pain medications. The authors note that the average individual in a senior living environment takes between 16 and 28 medications per day. Intervention with PARO, even for twenty minutes three times a week, significantly reduced the need for some of these medications.

In addition, research indicates that robotic pets can reduce loneliness in two primary ways: through establishment of a direct relationship with the robot and by spurring conversation and interaction with others. Robotic pets have the potential to stimulate conversations between residents of care facilities, thereby strengthening social ties, while also providing an “icebreaker” topic for staff and visitors.

Smart Pets of the Future

What if a robotic pet could do more than ease loneliness and offer opportunities for socialization? That’s the goal of a new collaboration between scientists at Brown University and a spinoff company of the toymaker Hasbro called Ageless Innovation. The project, dubbed Affordable Robotic Intelligence for Elderly Support (ARIES), seeks to enhance Hasbro’s Joy for All robotic cats with artificial intelligence. The robotic cats have been on the market for a few years, marketed as companions for seniors. They can purr, meow, and even roll over to ask for a belly rub. Now, a team of psychologists and computer scientists is working to make these robots “smart” so they can assist older adults with everyday tasks.

Bertram Malle

Bertram Malle

As part of ARIES, cognitive psychologist Bertram Malle and colleagues are performing a variety of user studies to figure out the challenges that seniors face (right. Credit: Bertram Malle.). “We do not want to build a robot that does the laundry and dishes and gets you out of bed because we think this is unrealistic,” says Malle, who is co-director of Brown’s Humanity-Centered Robotics Initiative. “That’s why we use this challenge analysis and ask people over 65 about the challenges in their lives and where they would like technological help.” Malle says that one of the top challenges named by seniors is finding lost objects. “It seems trivial, but it’s a real burden as people begin to lose their memory and misplace everyday items,” he says.

The research team’s goal is to imbue the Joy for All cat with capabilities that will help with small but challenging tasks of daily living, such as finding lost objects, providing medication or appointment reminders, and connecting with friends and family. The team is also studying the best way for these robots to communicate with people. The current Joy for All Companion Pets make some realistic pet sounds and gestures. Malle and his collaborators are looking to expand those capacities so the pets could give meaningful clues, such as gestures or nudges, to get across their messages.

One critical factor the researchers are keeping in mind is cost. “Our interest is in building some intelligent functions into the system while keeping it absolutely affordable,” says Malle. “We want every person who wants one to be able to have one.” The current Joy for All pets cost about $100 and the researchers don’t want that value to increase by too much. (By comparison, PARO can cost over $6,000.) With an affordable price tag, Malle and his colleagues hope their smart robotic pets will be available to lighten the burden on caregivers and enable more people to live independently in their own homes for longer.

Considerations and Concerns

While robotic pets can initially offer novelty, over time, that wears off and the pet may lose its appeal. Hasse thinks PARO and other robotic pets could be good therapeutic tools for dementia patients but wonders how people with no cognitive impairment will respond to them. “If I was using it, I would get bored after a while. Probably you would get bored, as well,” she says.

Elizabeth Zelinski

Elizabeth Zelinski

Elizabeth Zelinski, director of the Center for Digital Aging at the University of Southern California (right. Credit: Elizabeth Zelinski.), says a key challenge will be keeping people interested in robotic pets for more than a few months. “We’ve done some work showing older people think these robots are cute and might be fun to have around, but what researchers have not done in general is to look at what happens when you have a robotic pet beyond three months,” she says. “Will you feel the same way about it and use the pet in the same way at four months as you do during the first week? Is there enough there to keep the person engaged?”

There are also ethical concerns involved in the use of robotic pets. One worry is that using robots for elder care could result in less social contact and more isolation. Although pet robots can interact with their owners, their behavioral repertoires at the moment are extremely limited and they are far from real companions. There is a risk that despite these limitations, the provision of a robotic pet could be used to justify leaving a senior alone for longer.

Then there are the complicated issues of deception and infantilization of the elderly. Some argue that it is deceptive if the elderly person thinks they are interacting with a living animal, or that encouraging elderly people to interact with robotic pets has the effect of infantilizing them. “We are just beginning to think about the ethical issues associated with robotic pets,” says Zelinski. “These are hard questions, and I don’t know that there is a good answer.”

“There is this concern that older adults might become strongly emotionally attached and have false expectations of robots,” says Malle. “We need to be aware and ask ourselves if that is deception or an acceptable misunderstanding. What if a person with advanced Alzheimer’s disease thinks this is a real cat? What are the costs? Does it open up vulnerabilities or does it actually help their quality of life?” These are open questions that demand more discussion. Still, research suggests that robotic pets can enrich the lives of some elderly persons, if introduced with foresight and careful guidance.

“Ideally, they would be used in conjunction with other practices, like animal-assisted therapy,” says Joyce. “In combination with trained staff, other therapies, and a good staff-to-patient ratio, I think robotic pets have a role to play.”

Hasse also sees a role for some robotic pets in elder care, noting that it depends on the person. “The key is you can’t make one solution fit all,” she says. “There is a lot of hype around these things, and we need research that goes beyond the hype to explore the long-term effects and tell us when they are useful and how they could be improved.”

References and Further Reading

  1. R. Abbott et al., “How do ‘robopets’ impact the health and wellbeing of residents in care homes? A systematic review of qualitative and quantitative evidence,” Int. J. Older People Nurs., p. e12239, 2019. doi: 10.1111/opn.12239
  2. J. Broekens, M. Heerink, and H. Rosendal, “Assistive social robots in elderly care: A review,” Gerontechnology, vol. 8, no. 2, pp. 94–103, 2009. doi: 10.4017/gt.2009.08.02.002.00
  3. D. Chiberska, “The use of robotic animals in dementia care: Challenges and ethical dilemmas,” Mental Health Pract., 2018. doi: 10.7748/mhp.2018.e1342
  4. M. Leng et al., “Pet robot intervention for people with dementia: A systematic review and metaanalysis of randomized controlled trials,” Psychiat. Res., vol. 271, pp. 516–525, 2019. doi: 10.1016/ j.psychres.2018.12.032
  5. S. Petersen et al., “The utilization of robotic pets in dementia care,” J. Alzheimer’s Dis., vol. 55, no. 2, pp. 569–574, 2017. doi: 10.3233/JAD-160703
  6. L. Pu et al., “The effectiveness of social robots for older adults: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled studies,” Gerontologist, vol. 59, no. 1, pp. e37–e51, 2019. doi: /10.1093/geront/gny046
  7. H. Robinson et al., “The psychosocial effects of a companion robot: A randomized controlled trial,” J. Amer. Med. Directors Assoc., vol. 14, no. 9, pp. 661– 667, 2013. doi: 10.1016/j.jamda.2013.02.007