Robotic pets helping seniors prevent loneliness during pandemic

Posted at 5:03 PM, Sep 10, 2020

“If you keep your hand here long enough it feels like he’s breathing,” Alan Trujillo said, explaining the lifelike, battery-powered pet he was holding. It’s a toy he brings in for older adults, as part of his job with Home Instead.

“We provide senior care for seniors in their home,” he said. “A lot of times the only person our senior will see is their caregiver.”

Trujillo works as the recruitment and engagement coordinator for Home Instead in Whittier, California.

Right now with COVID-19 concerns, interactions for seniors are limited, and all the more important.

“They’re very aware that they are in that high majority group of people who don't survive this, so it does lead to a little depression,” Trujillo said.

Depression these lifelike animals help combat.

“Well before the pandemic we’ve been focused on this epidemic of loneliness and isolation which is really impacting seniors at an astronomical rate,” Ted Fischer, co-founder and CEO of Ageless Innovation, said. Ageless Innovation is the parent company of the Joy for All line of companion pets.

“We currently have cats, dogs and kittens,” he said. “It's not about the technology, it's about the magic. It's about what the technology enables.”

A study by the University of California, San Francisco in 2012 found that 43 percent of the surveyed older adults felt lonely. And that was long before the pandemic.

Social isolation has also been associated with about a 50 percent increased risk of dementia, among other serious medical conditions, according to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine as cited by the CDC.

It’s an issue that’s only been made worse by COVID-19.

“All of these incredibly important protective measures that are put in place are further isolating older adults,” Fischer said.

And these furry friends, designed with older adults in mind, bark, meow, and react to your attention just like real animals.

“Pets in general have always helped seniors and most people get out of a funk. Coming home to that dog that’s just looking at you and wagging its tail, it’s hard to feel upset because that's unconditional love,” Catherine Baines-Sobczak, a licensed marriage family therapist with the HealthOne crisis assessment team, said.

“Essentially it’s a perception of not feeling connected to other people, feeling unsupported or feeling that you’re misunderstood,” she said. She said beyond the online games, book clubs, and phone calls, animals provide something special.

“With seniors it's difficult to find things to care for that give you that immediate reaction, so those pets...they do that,” she explained. “Having something to hold that’s tactile, that's soft, that may bring up memories of past pets they've had...that could help them feel less lonely.”

Decreasing the sense of loneliness has other health benefits too.

“Their memory is also impaired by loneliness, you don't have those outside triggers to remind you of things and to stay connected,” Baines-Sobczak said.

As we find new ways to connect with our older loved ones without putting their health at risk, the demand for companion pets, which are sold online, continues to bloom.

“I think like most skeptics, the second you see an older adult receive one of these, immediately name it and interact with it like they've had it forever, it’s magical. It really is,” Fischer said.