Using robotic pets in the treatment of dementia care

Mark Beaumont MD

January 12, 2022

 

 

How can technological innovation help treat symptoms of dementia?

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, currently there are over 46 million people who are living in the U.S with dementia. By 2050, this number will rise to 131 million. Alzheimer’s dementia is a common disease affecting many and it is very costly to treat as well. The worldwide costs of dementia care exceeded $600 billion dollars last year. Research has shown that patients with cognitive decline and dementia use healthcare more often compared to patients with other major diseases and care services provided by caregivers to people with dementia was valued at more than $202 billion in 2015.

Animal assisted therapy

Research has shown that owning an animal or just having regular interactions with a pet can have positive and favorable health benefits in treating medical conditions in the elderly. This is called animal assisted therapy. Many senior healthcare settings still do not accept animals, even though they acknowledge the benefits of activities involving therapy pets. There are natural staff concerns to patients which include allergic reactions, biting, scratching or even fear of the animals.

Many people with Alzheimer’s dementia display behavioral and psychological problems which include symptoms of depression and anxiety. 

Common complaints include: 

-fatigue

-low energy

-sleep disturbances

-loneliness

-tremors 

-aggression in rare cases 

These problems may result in long-term hospitalizations, increased medication use and decreased quality of life for patients and caregivers.

One potential solution for these common medical symptoms is the use of robotic pet therapy. There is one such example called “PARO” which is short for “personal robot” in the Japanese language. The FDA-approved device is designed to look and act like a baby seal. Covered in artificial fur, the robotic creature has a hard inner-skeleton under which there is technology for behavior generation and voice recognition. PARO, as a result, imitates animal behavior but also responds to light, sound, temperature, touch and posture and, over time, due to its artificial intelligence capability, develops its own “character.” It can calm seniors with its eye contact, cooing sounds and gently waving flippers.

Research has shown that PARO promotes the positive psychological and physiological therapeutic results for dementia patients who interact with it, lowering stress levels, improving symptoms of depression and reducing symptoms of anxiety and agitation in many cases. Other examples of robotic pets have also shown good results in providing therapeutic support to help alleviate symptoms in dementia patients. There is also Jennie the robotic dog who has a soft, furry body and can mimic typical pet movements from rolling on its’ back, cuddling with its’ owner, sniffing at something, listening intently and reacting with curiosity. The pets are designed in such a way that they can respond to your calls and whistles making the dementia patient feel as though they indeed have a live companion and someone to care for. The animals also have a heartbeat making the patient feel that indeed they have a live pet. They will also wink, wag their tail, turn their head as well as close its mouth.

These encounters with therapeutic pets also reduce a patient’s reliance on psychotropic medications for calming and avoids the dangerous sedating side effects. This is promising news for dementia sufferers as regular doses of such medications can lead to a faster cognitive decline, according to multiple studies. Research has linked animal-assisted therapy to improvements in mood and the quality of life for seniors, including those with dementia. 

Man’s Best (Robot) Friend: Robotic Pets Help Elders Reduce Pill Dependency and Lower Stress; CB Insights; Research Briefs; October 31, 2017.