Are Robotic Pets as Good as Real Ones for Older Adults?
A new generation of interactive companions may help combat isolation
Last year, an independent film called Robot & Frank captured my attention. Frank Langella starred as an older man “Frank” in the not-so-distant future who is facing increasing cognitive impairment and possible dementia. His adult son buys him a robot to care for him at home.
As you can imagine, Frank initially resists the robot, only to wind up developing a friendship with it. His emotional attachment is poignant when the robot gently reminds him, “Frank, I know you don’t want to hear this, but I am not a person, just an advanced simulation.” (It’s a touching moment, not dissimilar to when Tom Hanks cried, “Wilson!” when his volleyball/friend fell off the raft into the ocean in Castaway.)
Robotic Pets: Maybe Even Better than Real
The not-so-distant future in the film is here when it comes to robotic pets. In October, Hasbro introduced its second Companion Pet — a robotic, furry, interactive dog named Golden Pup — in its Joy for All Companion Pets brand (its first robotic pet was a cat — three, actually: Orange Tabby Cat, Creamy White Cat and Silver Cat With White Mitts — introduced last year).
Designed to bring happiness and comfort to older adults who feel lonely or isolated, Companion Pet Pup includes what Hasbro calls BarkBack technology that allows the robotic pet to interact with the owner and includes a soft heartbeat similar to a real-life pet. The Companion Pets retail for $99 to $132.
The Hasbro pup joins other robotic pet offerings that began 15 years ago to address some of the companionship needs of older adults. While Hasbro is the first U.S.-based company to jump into robotic pets for older adults, most of the earlier offerings came from Japanese companies, a natural reflection of Japan’s rapidly aging population.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 27 percent of Japanese citizens are 65 or older, and by 2030, that group will make up 32 percent of its citizenry. (In the U.S., by comparison, 20 percent of the population is expected to be 65 or older by 2030.) At the same time, the working-age population, and numbers of available family caregivers, is shrinking.
History of the ‘Breed’
Sony was first in robotic pets with its AIBO dog, a metallic looking beagle that in its last iteration in 2005 used artificial intelligence (AI) to react to external stimuli. It “learned” an owner’s likes and environment while connecting wirelessly to other devices. While no longer available, AIBO has become a collector’s item with a price tag to boot — $500 to $4,000 on eBay — putting it out of the reach of most older adults or their family caregivers.
Another offering, Paro the Seal ($5,000 retail price tag) which is marketed as a “carebot,” was designed specifically for those with dementia. With its white fluffy baby seal fur and lifelike melting eyes, Paro robots have been used in studies, mostly in assisted living environments, to show improved social interactions. Paro also appeared in the Aziz Ansari hit Netflix comedy series, Master of None.
There is also Innova Lab’s PLEO robotic dinosaur, a plush animatronic camarasaurus introduced in 2007. Programmed with a sophisticated sensory system, PLEO explores and reacts to the environment, interacts with the user and expresses emotion — all for $900.
According to Ted Fischer, vice president of business development at Hasbro, Companion Pets are a natural evolution from the popular earlier animatronic offering for kids, Furby. While the robotic pet line is targeted for older adults, it addresses not just benefits for them but an intergenerational component, where grandkids can play with older generations on a different level.
Pros and Cons of Robotic Pets
Fischer believes Hasbro is addressing an important need of older adults — those who want pet companionship but are unable to have, or care for, a real pet. There is no need to feed, walk or clean up after the robot. It also is allergy and parasite-free and doesn’t come with the risk of biting or unpredictable behavior. And, a robot pet is not a trip hazard like a real dog or cat, a calamity that afflicts 2 million older adults every year who are treated in ERs because of falling at home. The Hasbro pets are soft and furry and have responses similar to real pets to create a connection and companionship.
While the robotic pet category has its champions, it also has its challengers.
“We believe live animals — be it dogs, cats, rabbits, chickens, turtles, guinea pigs — all offer an important part of ‘life’ that represents nurturing and normalcy and that does not go away even if you have memory problems,” says Kathy Greene, senior vice president of program services integration at Silverado Senior Living.
Silverado, dedicated to dementia care in its own assisted living communities and in individuals’ homes, has infused pet therapy into its services since the company was founded. Today, with more than 600 pets residing in Silverado's 20 residential communities in seven states, the company is a strong advocate for pets as part of life — no matter our age or situation.
Greene explains that while robotic pets can offer a novelty in the beginning, over time, the spontaneity goes away. That's because the owner has to engage the robot to respond versus a live animal who can innately and intuitively read a person’s emotions and give him or her a lick on the hand or set its head on a lap.
“A behavioral repertoire requires varied stimulation or it loses its benefit. It is the same with children who become bored of the same toy or adults with FitBits which, studies have shown, the average consumer uses for about a month and then the novelty wears off,” says Elizabeth Zelinski, director of the Center for Digital Aging at the University of Southern California.
Research Shows Differences
These insights are backed by a comprehensive study published this summer by Danish researchers who compared a real dog to a Paro robotic pet and a toy animal. The researchers’ results show that in the first six weeks, participants responded and communicated most with the real dog and the robotic Paro, but over time, the probability and duration of talking to and about the animals remained constant only with the live dog.
Hal Herzog, a professor emeritus of psychology at Western Carolina University, wrote in Psychology Today that many studies on animal-assisted interventions in nursing homes are methodologically weak and have produced inconsistent results. But he feels the Danish study was important in demonstrating the benefits of a real pet versus a robotic or toy pet.
Silverado has numerous anecdotal stories of its residents benefiting from the animals in its communities. A woman in its Texas community often attempted to rise and leave her wheelchair, putting her at risk for falls. After a cat was introduced to her, she sat quietly for hours stroking and brushing the animal in her lap. A Silverado resident in its Chicagoland community had high anxiety after every meal until she started having post-meal conversations with Michelangelo the turtle. (The residency manager had recently installed his own turtle tank near the dining room.) The staff has reported that when the woman starts to talk to the turtle, it swims over to her and seems to wave at her in recognition.
While the older adults benefit from the pets, the care — feeding, grooming, walking, etc. — is handled by Silverado staff.
Interaction with Humans Is Key
Zelinski believes that for the older adult to have a therapeutic benefit, stimulation from the pet who provides some novelty is helpful. But just having pets may not always be enough. The ability to have the pet spur conversation and interaction with others is a component of what some studies believe is most valuable to the individual.
“Supplementing pet interactions — whether real or robotic — with human interaction is also important,” Zelinski said.
While animal-assisted therapy has been around in some form or another since the 1700s, the age of robotics is here and may be our future glimpse into “man’s best friend.”
“It might sound surreal for us to have robotic or virtual pets, but it could be totally normal for the next generation,” Jean-Loup Rault, professor at the University of Melbourne in Australia, told the technology publication, Mashable.
Note to readers: As I write this article, I have my new 10-week old puppy sleeping on my feet — so I can confirm cartoonist Charles Schulz’s assertion that “Happiness is a warm puppy.”