Introducing a protocol for using robotic pets in memory care

You might think it was a typical therapy session at a long-term care facility. In a quiet room, a therapist sets down a pet carrier, brings out a cat, and sets it on a resident’s lap. As the resident gently strokes the cat’s fur, it purrs, and the therapist asks the resident questions about their childhood pets, accessing long-ago memories.

The resident’s enjoyment of the session and the benefit for their well-being is real. But the animal is not. It’s 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 disadvantages and unpredictability of real animals.

In a paper published in the Canadian Journal of Recreation Therapy, University of Utah researcher Rhonda Nelson and graduate student Rebecca Westenskow developed a protocol for using robotic pets with older adults with dementia. The protocol uses a low-cost robotic pet, establishes ideal session lengths, and identifies common participant responses to the pets to aid in 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 and Recreational Therapies. “And then we were evaluating how people responded to those different cues so that we could then provide some guidelines to people on how to have the most beneficial actions with these animals.”

An affordable robotic pet

Nelson has watched the development of robotic pets for the past decade, intrigued by the potential to use them therapeutically in long-term and geriatric care settings. But until recently the price was prohibitive. “Having been a therapist myself and training our students to work as therapists, I’m very aware that most facilities would never be able to purchase them.”

But with the introduction of Ageless Innovation’s Joy For All Companion pets in 2015, priced at under $150, widespread use of robotic pets as therapy “animals” seemed within reach. Robotic pets can get around many of the risks and drawbacks of live animals in long-term care settings. Many facilities don’t allow personal pets because of allergies, the potential for bites or scratches and other reasons.

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