The newest therapeutic protocol in use at the Jewish Association on Aging was quietly introduced several months ago. But between the purrs, meows and nestling that the robotic cats perform, these nonmedicinal aides are anything but silent.
Marketed as a “companion pet” and sold under Hasbro’s Joy for All brand for $99 each, the battery-operated felines are lifelike creatures intended to serve as “soothing companions to those who have Alzheimer’s and dementia,” said JAA representatives.
“We are always looking for nonmedicinal interventions to maybe help with some of the behavior issues. For the residents who love animals, it has been a godsend for us,” said Carol Danhires, director of activities at the JAA’s Charles Morris Nursing and Rehabilitation Center.
The furry mechanical cats are a blessing, agreed Dee Jay Oshry, whose cousin is a resident at Charles Morris. “When we went to visit her, she had a cat on her lap. She absolutely dealt with that cat as if it were alive and hers. She was petting it, and the cat was moving and meowing. From that point on, every time we have gone back, including today, the cat is on her lap and doesn’t leave there. It is a part of her life.”
Oshry said that his cousin has mild dementia and has lived at Charles Morris for a couple of years. Even though she still talks about going home, Oshry said, she “sees that she’s at home” there, and the cat is “just a constant companion for her.”
“I think it’s a very reasonable thing to try,” said Dr. Fred Rubin, on utilizing the robotic cats for therapeutic purposes.
Rubin, who is chairman of the department of medicine at UPMC Shadyside and a professor of medicine within the Division of Geriatric Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, continued, “I think the proof of the pudding is in the eating. If people are comforted by it, then fine, but I don’t think it will be a one-stop solution for everyone. Pets are not for everybody. Some people will be terrified of a therapy pet, other people always hated dogs or cats, and for them, having an animal, even a robotic animal, won’t be a good thing.”
Further, Rubin noted that the fact that certain residents find solace in the electronic animals is anecdotal. “It’s nice, but there are criteria for what constitutes good, quality scientific research, and they’re not there yet.”
A 2015 article in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, a multidisciplinary peer-reviewed journal, echoed Rubin’s comments.
The study, which followed the application of “a humanoid robot, a pet robot and a real animal in therapy sessions of patients with dementia in a nursing home and a day care center,” showed “no significant differences in the measurable outcomes of cognition, quality of life and apathy among participants exposed to a control pet robot and real animal.”
Similar investigations into the therapeutic benefits of “socially assisted pet robots” is underway, reported the Journal of Medical Internet Research. An ongoing Hong Kong-based study is examining the use of robotic pets to “improve mood, and stimulate social interaction and communication in the care of older people with dementia.”
Whatever the scientific conclusions, Oshry believes the electronic animal has benefit for his cousin, who has no family left except an out-of-town son. “The cat has provided a meaning in her life, and it is an important meaning in her life, and it reminds her of life, and I think that’s great. The cat gives her something to care about.”
Rubin, however, is concerned about the robotic cats spreading infections. If one resident has a cold and passes the cat over to another resident who may not have a cold, there is a risk of spreading illness, he said. Unlike “a smooth surface that you can put Clorox on, furry things are going to transmit germs.”
“If it was somebody who had some kind of communicable disease, I’m not going to let them turn that over to somebody else,” said Danhires.
Up until now, in dealing with the handful of robotic cats in the memory care unit at Charles Morris, the staff has used dish detergent or dry shampoo from the beauty shop to wipe the fur off. Hasbro’s “Cat Care Guide” also advises users to “gently brush” the cat and wipe off dirt immediately, using a damp cloth if necessary, avoiding stain removers and detergents.
With all of this, “the bigger issue beyond robot cats is dealing with the emotional and behavioral aspects of severely demented people,” said Rubin. “We don’t have good ways of dealing with people with severe dementia.”
Too often, Rubin said, drugs are employed as a solution due to a lack of better options. “We need a prosthetic environment, an environment in which a demented person can get what they need and get well cared for because of the staff and the environment,” he added. “These cats are just one more way of dealing with impaired people who need support, and we’re not looking at drugs to deal with that.”
Danhires agrees: “We are trying to find ways that you don’t have to use medicine to reassure somebody. If someone is really upset about something, [the robotic cat] is a soothing way to help without giving medicine.”
Ultimately, Rubin said, “the best support is trained personnel in dementia units. That’s where the rubber meets the road, in the dementia units where the skill of the staff meets the patients themselves.”
As for Oshry’s cousin, she has the best of both worlds. “The staff is very caring and competent and does a great job with her,” he said.
No matter what, there are going to be those who feel that animatronic animals are “not a good thing,” said Danhires. But “this seems to work for some people, and that’s where we’re going. It’s not the cure-all end-all for all people. But it helps.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.