Loneliness, depression and dementia in older Australians are all too often treated with pharmaceutical interventions.
But in the wake of the Royal Commission, which identified chemical restraint of elders as an arbitrary and, on balance, detrimental practice, some residential aged care facilities have discovered a warm and fuzzy alternative.
Joy for All Companion Pets – robotic cat and dog dolls – are simulating the therapeutic effects of pet ownership, without the usual responsibility.
The life-like therapeutic toys sound and move like real animals and respond to hugging and petting.
Carinity Hilltop’s Kelvin Grove residential centre, just north of Brisbane, received a donation of three Joy for All pets back in March.
The facility’s residential manager, Ramandeep Gill, tells Aged Care News that the therapeutic devices have enhanced the wellbeing of residents and prompted increased social interaction, particularly during periods of increased isolation due to COVID-19 lockdowns.
“The reactions from these residents have been incredibly positive. The smiles on their faces are priceless,” Gill says.
“Just like the use of real-life creatures for animal-assisted therapy at Carinity aged care sites, the robotic companion pets offer a comforting presence for aged care residents.”
“Some residents living with dementia who may be unresponsive to other therapies may brighten up, pat and talk to the companion pet.”
However, the technology has proven to have a pro-social effect on all residents, regardless of their cognitive condition.
“Interacting with companion animals can help to improve residents’ health and wellbeing and social interaction, providing opportunities for residents to share stories about the pets they had in their younger years,” Gill says.
Following the donation of three robotic companion animals to Carinity Hilltop by neighbouring Kelvin Grove State College, students had a competition to name two of the companion pets ‘Skye’ and ‘Astro’.
The third companion pet is known as ‘Cuddles’, named by a Carinity Hilltop resident in honour of a pet cat she once owned.
An aspirational little toy
The Joy for All Companion Pets were originally launched by Hasbro as a consumer product for older adults in 2015.
Ted Fischer, co-founder and chief executive officer of Ageless Innovation, tells Aged Care News that there was a glaring gap in the market for products that provided joy for older adults.
“There’s so many products out there for older adults that are necessary but not necessarily aspirational, you know, walkers and bedpans and things of that nature, that you know are necessary but no one wants to talk about them,” he says.
“You know, we work hard our whole life, so we can get to a point where we can retire and relax and play a little bit more, and we get there and society tells us we’re too old to play.
“That’s incongruent with what older adults actually want.
“We had some insights with a product, about 20 years ago, that was really made for four to eight-year-old girls… 20 per cent of the reviews were from mums not buying it for their daughter but buying it for their aging loved one.’
“Older adults definitely want to have more fun, more play, and … there was this really incredible need for interactive companionship, which was really missing.”
Fischer adds that his experience with his own beloved grandmother, who lived with dementia, was in front of mind when developing the product.
“Her ‘recipe’ against forgetting things was laughter and fun and play,” he says.
“She was definitely an inspiration to our team.”
Fischer speaks in detail about the philosophy behind the product in a 2019 TED talk titled The Power of Play to End Social Isolation and Loneliness.
Furthermore, Fischer notes that the toy is a useful tool for those living in residential aged care who may be too shy to fully engage in communal activities.
“Take some of those people that are not necessarily extroverted, they don’t meet people as easily, and they have our pet: people actually come to them and make them the centre of attention and that brings them joy.
“It brings their family joy to know that they’re more integrated into their community and into the social setting.”
Play backed by science
Nearly half a million Australians currently live with dementia, and this number is set to double in the next 25 years.
Despite the disease being the second leading cause of death in Australia, there is no cure, with the condition costing the Australian economy $3 billion annually in health and aged care spending.
Robot animal therapy has come as a welcome addition to the health and well-being toolkit, with results from independent studies confirming the positive anecdotal experiences.
“Independent clinical research has shown that animatronic pets reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness, and improve quality of care and life for older adults; reducing agitation, anxiety and use of medication for those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias,” Fischer says.
In a pilot programme commissioned by The New York State Office for the Aging in 2018, 70 per cent of participants showed a decrease or a significant decrease in loneliness after one year.
To find out more about the Joy for All Companion Pets, follow this link.