Here’s how robotic pets can help heal memory

You might think this was a typical therapy session in a long-term care facility. In a quiet room, a therapist puts down a pet carrier, pulls out a cat, and places it in a resident’s lap. As the resident gently strokes the cat’s fur, it purrs and the therapist asks the resident about his childhood pets, accessing memories from long ago.

The pleasure of the session for the resident and the benefit for his well-being is real. But the animal is not. He is a robotic pet with synthetic fur and programmed movements and sounds. But researchers are finding that robotic pets can be useful in therapy, without some of the inconvenience and unpredictability of real animals.

In an article published in the Canadian Journal of Recreation Therapy, Rhonda Nelson, a researcher at the University of Utah, and Rebecca Westenskow, a graduate student, have developed a protocol for using robotic pets with elderly people with dementia. The protocol uses a low-cost robotic pet, establishes ideal session lengths, and identifies common participant responses to pets to facilitate future research.

“Our protocol had questions like: Would you like to scratch the dog behind his ears? Would you like to pet him? Would you like to brush him? says Nelson, an assistant professor in the Department of Occupational Therapy and Recreation. how people reacted to these different cues so that we can then provide guidelines for people on how to have the most beneficial actions with these animals.”

An affordable robotic pet

Nelson has watched the development of robotic pets over the past decade, intrigued by the potential for their therapeutic use in long-term and geriatric care settings. But until recently, the price was prohibitive. “Having been a therapist myself and having trained our students to work as therapists, I am very aware that most establishments could never buy them.”

But with the introduction of Ageless Innovationit is Joy for all pets in 2015, priced at less than $150, the widespread use of robotic pets as therapy “animals” seemed within reach. Robotic pets can circumvent many of the risks and inconveniences of live animals in long-term care facilities. Many establishments do not allow pets due to allergies, risk of bites or scratches, and other reasons.

Researchers have already started studying how people with dementia interact with robotic pets, Nelson notes, but have yet to develop a unified protocol to give, for example, assisted living staff a plan to fire. the most out of using pets through directed interaction. .

“There was very little information about what people were doing with pets,” Nelson says. “So without those tips, it’s just a toy. And what do you do with it?”

Observe interactions

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers met with five people aged 82 to 87 living in long-term care facilities who suffered from severe cognitive impairment. In two sessions of 30 minutes each, the researchers released either a robotic dog or a cat (at the participants’ choice) in a transport cage.

“Many participants leaned towards the [robotic pet] when it was removed from the pet carrier,” the researchers noted, “they then instinctively grabbed it and began to pet, rub, or scratch the animal when first introduced.

Throughout the session, the researchers asked questions, both about participants’ experiences with past pets and about interacting with the current robotic animal. “Did they have dogs or cats? Nelson says, giving examples of typical questions. “What were their names?” Did they keep them inside or outside? What kinds of foods did they eat? »

The researchers carefully observed the participants’ responses to the pets. The robotic pets moved and made sounds, which Nelson says helped participants interact with them.

“When the dog was barking, he would say things like, ‘Oh, are you trying to tell me something?'” she said. “Or they would comment on the cat’s purr and say things like, ‘Wow, you must be really happy! I feel you purring. One of the activities that people responded to the most was brushing the animals.

In one case, however, the session was held in silence. The participant struggled to communicate his thoughts but remained focused on the robotic dog throughout. At the end of the session, the participant seemed to develop a connection with the robotic animal, saying “I like this dog. When he loves me.

Nelson is often asked if participants with cognitive decline understand that robotic animals are not alive. In this study, she said, they all seemed to be aware that it was not a living animal.

“Interestingly, one of our participants was a retired veterinarian,” she says. “So I was very intrigued to see how he would interact with that.” He chose to have both the robotic dog and the cat on his lap at the same time. “We would never tell someone it was live if they asked. We would be honest with them. We usually introduce it as “Would you hold my dog” and people react or respond to it in a way that makes sense to them. »

Initial recommendations

Unfortunately, data collection was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. But the researchers were able to draw some conclusions.

All participants enjoyed the activity, with several saying they “enjoyed it a lot”. One participant did not like the sounds made by the animal, which was easily resolved by muting the sound, which is not an option for a live animal.

The questions that elicited the most responses were about personal memories and instructions for interacting with the animal.

A common, but spontaneous behavior, the researchers report, was communicating with the animal. “Several participants spontaneously used comments, sounds, specific inflections, and facial expressions with the pets,” the researchers wrote. “Some participants imitated the animal cries emitted by the [pet] and repositioned the animal to look at his face or make eye contact.

Although more research is needed to determine the optimal session length, the researchers noted that the 30-minute sessions in the study were sufficient. Nelson also hopes to explore how people with different levels of cognitive decline respond to pets, as well as how they can be used in groups.

The study found that the most meaningful interactions and enjoyable experiences occurred when the participant was self-directing the session.

“In recreational therapy, we always talk about providing person-centered care,” Nelson says. So it’s not really about what I think of an activity. If someone appreciates it and it brings them happiness, then it all depends on what they think about it.

Why is interacting with robotic pets such an enjoyable experience?

“People in long-term care facilities are in a position where everyone is providing care for them,” Nelson says, “and being in the role where you’re nurturing something else, or you’re the caregiver, I think also psychologically very comforting for people to feel like, even though they know it’s not live, they’re the person giving love and compassion to something, and it responds.

See the full study here.

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