A robo-pet for companionship?

There is no doubt that seniors are suffering emotionally, and physically, from the social isolation of the pandemic. Those with dementia have been especially hard hit. Even elders who live on their own with no memory problems are struggling with loneliness, depression, and anxiety.

How is your loved one doing emotionally? Want to introduce a pandemic-safe companion? Odd as it sounds, you might consider a robo-cat (or dog) as part of your emotional COVID first aid.

Pets are beloved companions. And studies with elders show that even short regular visits—called “pet therapy”—with trained companion animals can lower blood pressure and reduce stress and anxiety.

Robo-pets are lifelike, battery-operated creatures. Robo-cats and -dogs look real. They have fur that feels real, and they can purr (cats) or bark (dogs). They also “interact” in that a robo-pet can move its head, open and close its eyes, respond to voice and touch, and lift a front paw. The cats even roll over! These pets require no walking, feeding, or cleaning of a litter box. They cost $100–$150. There are no vet bills. Plus, you avoid allergies, fleas, and the inevitable grief when a beloved pet eventually dies.

But really? Can a fake dog or cat provide companionship? Studies with robo-pets have shown that people with mild to moderate dementia respond quite well. They appear to become less stressed and anxious. Those spending time with a robo-pet, even short visits, seem to need less pain medicine. They also exhibit fewer behavior problems and require less medication to stay calm.

Robo-pet studies also show benefits for older adults with no memory problems. Participants were well aware these “pets” were not real dogs and cats. Still, treating them as if they were real decreased feelings of loneliness and boosted feelings of resilience and mental well-being. The “pet owners” also reported feeling a greater sense of purpose in life.