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Good to Know: Robotic cats, dogs can help dementia patients

Helen, 84, interacts with Ace, a robotic dog

Helen, 84, interacts with Ace, a robotic dog at an Alzheimer's care facility in Boca Raton, Fla.  Credit: TNS/Yutao Chen

Helen is enamored with furry little Bonita, who purrs, meows and stretches out in her arms.

“It’s OK, it’s OK,” cooed the 84-year-old patient at the Alzheimer’s Community Care organization’s Specialized Adult Day Care Center in Boca Raton, Florida, as Bonita rolled on her back for a belly rub. “You’re a pretty girl. Yes, you are. Are you going to be a good girl?”

Bonita isn’t a real cat, and it’s unclear whether Helen realizes it.

But if interacting with the robotic pet slows the advancement of Helen’s mind-robbing Alzheimer’s disease, it doesn’t matter that the cat isn’t real, the day care’s operators say.

Recently, the center invited some of its donors and local media to witness a pair of robotic pets — Bonita the cat and a dog the residents named Ace — capturing the hearts and imaginations of the center’s daily patients.

The robotic pets were among the first products in a line developed for the aging market by a division of toymaker Hasbro. Called Joy For All, the division was spun off by the products’ developers in May into a stand-alone company that’s looking at ways to integrate artificial intelligence into future robotic pets.

Although real live pets visit the day care center on pet therapy days, the robotic stand-ins are safer to have around, said Karen Gilbert, vice president of education and quality assurance for Alzheimer’s Community Care.

“They’ll sit on your lap and respond to touch. The dog, we learned, even has a microphone and responds to voice commands,” Gilbert said. “Our patients can hold onto them as long as they want. They won’t jump off their laps. Live animals — you never know what they’ll do.”

In a clinical study involving 61 senior citizens with mild to moderate dementia, members of the group that regularly interacted with a robotic pet three times weekly for 20 minutes were found to have lower levels of stress, anxiety and depression, allowing providers to decrease pain and psychoactive medication, compared with the group that received standard activity programs. The study, published in November 2016 by the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, was funded by the Baylor Deerbrook Charitable Trust.

Use of the robotic pets is one of many ways that the Alzheimer’s Community Care organization works to fulfill the intent of specialized adult day care centers, formally created in 2012 by the state to help forestall nursing home placement for Alzheimer’s patients.

Patients spend their days there but go home each night to their families or caregivers, said Jonathan Price, vice president, grants and fund development.

A robust schedule of daytime activities helps them remain relaxed during the at-home evening hours, when people with Alzheimer’s tend to become agitated — a behavioral cycle known as “sundowning” — that can complicate family members’ caregiving roles.

“One of the most effective ways to combat this is to have a patient have an active day,” Price said.

Activities are rolled out one after another — word games, math games, arts and crafts, music and dancing — to keep brain synapses firing as much as possible, Gilbert said.

The organization had heard about clinical successes from introducing robotic pets to Alzheimer’s patients and purchased an initial pair of Joy for All pets for about $100 each with a grant from the Palm Beach County Partnership for Aging. After seeing its own residents’ reactions, the organization asked its donor network to help locate money to buy more.

Nancy Schiller, owner of a Boca Raton gift store, In Good Taste, stepped up, donating $3,000 to buy a pair of the hypoallergenic robotic pets for each of Alzheimer’s Community Care’s 10 other specialized day care centers in Palm Beach, Martin and St. Lucie counties.

“It’s a joy to give to this organization because you know exactly where your money is going,” Schiller said.

Joy for All’s cats come in three colors — orange tabby, silver with white mitts, and black and white tuxedo. The company’s website says they “look, feel and sound like real cats,” with sensors that respond to motion and touch, realistic fur and purring sounds and catlike movements.

The team decided to develop a product for older adults after noticing they comprised 10 to 15 percent of the market for animatronic toys created for children, said Ted Fischer, CEO of Ageless Innovation, which spun off from Hasbro to expand the Joy for All line.

“We wanted to create affordable, realistic, interactive companionship [with a] play pattern that was recognized and understood,” he said. “They give something and they get something — it’s tactile.”

But the brand’s developers weren’t trying to fool its elderly consumers into thinking the cats — or its robotic Golden Retriever pup — are the real thing, Fischer said.

“We were trying to replicate an experience for folks who were unable to enjoy a live pet,” he said.

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