As populations in many developed countries rapidly age while shortages of care workers loom, healthcare researchers are looking for new technologies that can help caregivers ensure old people in care homes have more rewarding and less stressful daily lives.
Following numerous trials where robot pets have been given to elderly people, a major new study has found these so-called "robopets" may be a reliable way to help reduce levels of loneliness among old people in residential care.
Extensive research has shown that small animal-like robots which have the appearance and many of the behavioural characteristics of animals help stimulate social interaction with other residents, family members and staff.
Two robot cats (Necoro and Justocat), a dog (Aibo), a bear (Cuddler) and a baby seal (Paro) made up the five different robopets studied in the report.
The systematic review, published in the International Journal of Older People Nursing, brought together evidence from 19 studies involving 900 care home residents and staff and family members.
"Although not every care home resident may choose to interact with robopets, for those who do, they appear to offer many benefits” said the report’s lead author Rebecca Abbott, from the University of Exeter Medical School in England.
“Some of these are around stimulating conversations or triggering memories of their own pets or past experiences, and there is also the comfort of touching or interacting with the robopet itself,” she added. “The joy of having something to care for was a strong finding across many of the studies."
The researchers acknowledged that not everyone liked robopets, and recommended specific staff training around the best use of the devices.
"It is not always possible to have a cat or a dog come into a care home," said the report’s co-author, Noreen Orr. "Of course robopets are no substitute for human interaction, but our research shows that they can have a range of benefits. A new wave of more affordable robopets may make them more accessible to care homes."
Takanori Shibata, the Japanese inventor behind Paro, the white baby seal designed to help people with Alzheimer's, has said he was inspired to create the robot seal by therapies using real animals.
"Interaction with animals improves the mood of the people, motivates people and also improves depression and anxiety," he said. But some people are allergic to animals, which can also transmit diseases, he previously told dpa. – dpa
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