Robotic Pets Provide Comfort to Dementia Patients
by Amelia Garrison
As the one-year anniversary of Pacific Brain Health Center’s robotic pet program approaches, a dementia caregiver shares their heartfelt story.
Is loneliness a health risk?
Loneliness, or social isolation, is a serious health risk that increases the chance of developing dementia by 50%, studies show. David Merrill, MD, PhD, Director of the Pacific Brain Health Center at Pacific Neuroscience Institute in Santa Monica, CA, explained why.
“Chronic loneliness plays a significant role in the onset and continuation of mental health distress,” Dr. Merrill said. “Our relationships with others are a major source of support, positive reinforcement, and opportunities for purpose in life.”
Dr. Merrill continued, “Safe and supportive social interactions are key to long-term mental health and well-being. They set the stage to have meaningful shared experiences in life celebrating birthdays, holidays, anniversaries, and the like. Experiencing cultural events with others similarly reinforces our connectedness to one another and results in feelings of well-being.”
The COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting social distancing and isolation have left many facing increased loneliness. “Over two years in, the COVID pandemic continues to significantly limit the comfort and safety of social opportunities, especially for those with long-term health conditions at risk of severe COVID,” said Dr. Merrill. “Worry about COVID infection and risk of severe health consequences appears to be driving sustained social isolation in an untold number of individuals.”
Sustained social isolation increases feelings of loneliness, as well as contributes to a heightened risk of chronic disease. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, health risks of loneliness also include:
- 29% increased risk of heart disease.
- 32% increased risk of stroke.
- Higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide.
Who is at risk of loneliness?
Although loneliness may be overlooked as a contributing factor to chronic disease and morbidity, loneliness can be a serious factor in overall wellbeing, particularly for older adults. Studies show that older adults are at increased risk for loneliness and social isolation because they are more likely to face factors such as living alone, the loss of family or friends, chronic illness, and hearing loss.
Dr. Merrill explained, “Human well-being is in many ways tied to social interaction-based relationships. We often find these close relationships among family members, and similar bonds can form in work settings. When those ties are suddenly severed, or at least dramatically altered, by an event like retirement [or COVID-19 restrictions], this can trigger depressive symptoms like low mood, decreased energy, poor focus, and trouble sleeping.”
What are robotic pets?
Robotic dogs and cats, such as Joy for All Companion Pets, are designed to look, feel, and touch like real-life house pets. These animal-like plushies exhibit dog and cat-like features, such as meowing when spoken to and responding to human touch and interaction. However, they do not have the demands or responsibilities of a real-life cat or dog, which dementia or Alzheimer’s patients cannot provide. In this way, robotic pets are feasible options to bring joy, friendship, and companionship to seniors living with dementia or Alzheimer’s.
Robotic pets combat loneliness
Robotic pets, or artificially intelligent machines made to resemble actual pets, are useful in combatting loneliness. Research suggests that robotic pets combat loneliness in older adults and people with ADRD (Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias). One such study found that robotic pets provide comfort and alleviate loneliness in those who live alone, have fewer social connections, and live less active lifestyles.
Organizations and state departments across the country, such as the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the State of Florida’s Department of Elder Affairs, have already begun implementing robotic pet therapy programs to provide companionship to isolated older adults. These programs went into effect during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, as older adults faced increased isolation due to social distancing protocols.
PNI’s robotic pet program
Pacific Neuroscience Institute is offering robotic pets through a generous private donation to the Pacific Brain Health Center. Over the past year, robotic pets were distributed to older adults with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. These robotic pets have provided a sense of comfort, joy, and friendship to those who need it the most.
“There are many creative behavioral approaches and intervention strategies that can help our patients experiencing dementia-related behavioral disturbances. One of them is by using therapeutic doll or robot pet therapy,” explained Mihae Kim, AGNP, BC, Adult Gerontology Nurse Practitioner at the Pacific Brain Health Center.
Do robotic pets cure dementia and Alzheimer’s?
Although robotic pets do not cure dementia or Alzheimer’s, research shows that robotic pets help reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness among older adults.
In addition, the use of robotic pets has proven to provide the following benefits:
- Stave off ADRD.
- Mitigate associated behavioral issues of anxiety and agitation.
- Provide an engaging experience that calms individuals without the use of medication.
- Helps to provide a sense of purpose.
- Improves mental function and capability.
- Increase cognitive activity.
- Address hospital-induced anxiety and delirium.
- Reduce burden for care partners.
Kim explained, “Patients living with dementia have not only cognitive changes but also can experience behavioral changes (agitation, depression, anxiety, irritability, and loneliness). The engagement with therapeutic robot pet therapy has benefited some of my patients greatly in terms of providing comfort, emotional support and distraction, and increasing social interaction in those who are experiencing loneliness, separation anxiety, and social isolation.”
A grateful caregiver
Pacific Brain Health Center’s robotic pet program has proven to be an effective solution to alleviating loneliness and isolation in patients with severe or advanced ADRD. Patients know that the pet is not a real animal but they become engaged nonetheless. Kim explained, “In particular, the program most benefits those who are in severe cognitive impairment and advanced stage dementia patients.”
One such patient received a white robotic cat through the program. Their daughter Patti wrote to Pacific Brain Health Center to share her story and express thanks.
“When Dad first received the robot cat, he loved it. The cat’s purring and actions, such as the blinking of the eyes and rolling over made my dad laugh and smile. He’d tell us to watch the cat as it was getting ready to roll over. Then he’d laugh with delight. All the caregivers and Dad’s Nurse Practitioner (NP) thought it was a great idea. Just watching the cat made everyone (including me!) smile and say ‘Ahhh, how cute!’)
Given Dad’s continuing decline, especially with short-term memory issues, I truly believe the cat will become a source of soothing comfort for Dad. Please send my sincere thanks to the generous donor who, by this lovely gesture, is bringing joy to so many seniors and loved ones. I send my thanks to you for your care and support of my dad.“
About Pacific Brain Health Center
The Pacific Brain Health Center helps patients and their families to navigate their difficult journey by creating mutual goals and roadmaps through clinical evaluation, as well as providing guidance with medical, behavioral, and psychosocial recommendations. Robotic pet therapy is one of the many recommendations that Pacific Brain Health Center offers patients living with dementia. The program provides comfort, support, and companionship as a method of combatting isolation and loneliness.
Santa Monica: 310-582-7641
About David Merrill, MD
David A. Merrill, MD, PhD, is an adult and geriatric psychiatrist with double-board certification by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology. He is Director of the Pacific Brain Health Center at Pacific Neuroscience Institute. Dr. Merrill has worked for several decades with patients suffering the behavioral health sequelae of age-related neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disorder. His more recent clinical and research work has expanded to include patients with history of head trauma, tumor, and stroke
About Mihae Kim, AGNP-BC
Mihae Kim, AGNP-BC, is an Adult Gerontology Nurse Practitioner specializing in the care of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. As a Dementia Care Nurse Practitioner at Pacific Brain Health Center, Mihae works closely with physicians and other multidisciplinary team members to provide a collaborative approach to managing these neurodegenerative disorders. Mihae helps patients and their families navigate their difficult journey by creating mutual goals and roadmaps through clinical evaluation, as well as providing guidance with medical, behavioral and psychosocial recommendations.
About the Author
Amelia is the Coordinator of Marketing & Communications at Pacific Neuroscience Insitute (PNI). She leads the PNI blog, newsletter, and digital communications.
Last updated: July 29th, 2022