Snuggly Little Robots Provide Company for Elderly With Dementia

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
June 27 2013 10:24 AM

Snuggly Little Robots Provide Company for Elderly With Dementia

130627-robot seal
Researcher Wendy Moyle with an elderly resident and a therapeutic robo-pet.

Photo courtesy Griffith University, Griffith Health Institute

First things first: No one is suggesting we lock all the old people in a room full of robots and throw away the key—though when Grandpa gets on one of his racist rants, that might sound tempting. But thanks to some new research, it does seem as though robots have something to offer the elderly, especially those suffering from dementia.

In a pilot study published by the Journal of Gerontological Nursing, a team of Australian and German researchers allowed elderly patients stricken with dementia to interact with “therapeutic companion robots.” In this case, the researchers used a Japanese creation called Paro—robots designed to sense touch, light, sound, temperature, and posture. The robots can show emotions, including happiness, surprise, and anger. They can also adapt to a user’s preferences, repeating actions that result in petting and avoiding actions they associate with being hit.

Advertisement

Oh, and did I mention the companion robots look like adorable harp seal pups? They even mimic authentic seal calls. (Wendy Moyle, one of the paper’s authors, told me this species was chosen because most people don’t have pre-existing experiences with baby seals they way they might with dogs or cats. Thus, patients are less likely to have a negative reaction to the robot.)

Using clinical dementia measurements, the researchers determined the impact the robots had on the test group’s behavior. They measured “tendency to wander, level of apathy, levels of depression, and anxiety ratings.” (Another group was given the same evaluation after a reading group to make sure the results weren’t just indicative of any old stimulation.) In the end, they found the robots to produce “a positive, clinically meaningful influence on quality of life, increased levels of pleasure and also reduced displays of anxiety.”

These results are perhaps not so surprising, as other robots have shown promise working with children on the autism spectrum and studies have shown pets and plants to be beneficial for the psychological wellbeing of the elderly. However, living animals present health risks for assisted care facilities and extra duties for the workers who run them.

“I think this offers the very interesting alternative of a pet surrogate,” says Sharon Brangman, chief of geriatrics at Upstate Medical University and former president of the American Geriatrics Society.* “I always have concerns about substituting inanimate objects for the real thing, but in this case, since it’s something that isn’t really assessing or evaluating the individual and really just providing some measure of comfort, I think it could be a suitable alternative.”

The paper’s authors also suggest that this technology would be easily implemented in the home, perhaps allowing families to better care for their aging relatives when assisted living isn’t a viable option—without making a robot the sole caretaker like in the recent movie Robot & Frank.

Robotic companion seals aren’t exactly Rosie from The Jetsons, but this is at least one very real way robots could play a more significant role in the homes of tomorrow.   

Correction, June 27, 2013: This blog post originally left the "s" off of Geriatrics in the American Geriatrics Society.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

TODAY IN SLATE

Doublex

Crying Rape

False rape accusations exist, and they are a serious problem.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

The Music Industry Is Ignoring Some of the Best Black Women Singing R&B

How Will You Carry Around Your Huge New iPhone? Apple Pants!

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Television

The Other Huxtable Effect

Thirty years ago, The Cosby Show gave us one of TV’s great feminists.

Lifetime Didn’t Find the Steubenville Rape Case Dramatic Enough. So They Added a Little Self-Immolation.

No, New York Times, Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman” 

Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 1:39 PM Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman,” New York Times. Neither Are Her Characters.
Behold
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 19 2014 6:22 PM Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 19 2014 6:35 PM Pabst Blue Ribbon is Being Sold to the Russians, Was So Over Anyway
  Life
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 19 2014 1:34 PM Empty Seats, Fewer Donors? College football isn’t attracting the audience it used to.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 4:48 PM You Should Be Listening to Sbtrkt
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 5:09 PM Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?   A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.