New British research suggests that high-tech “robopets” are the next best thing for nursing home residents unable to have a beloved pet or those suffering from loneliness.  The robopets stimulate conversations and trigger fond memories of pets or past experiences.

In the new study, Abbott’s group analyzed data from 19 studies involving 900 nursing home residents, family members and staff at centers worldwide. Five different robopets were used in the studies: Necoro and Justocat (cats); Aibo (a dog); Cuddler (a bear); and Paro (a baby seal).

Many nursing home residents were entertained by the robopet even if they realized it wasn’t a real dog or cat. Of course, “residents’ responses could vary according to whether they were living with dementia and according to the severity of the dementia,” Abbott’s team noted.

Some residents talked to the robopet as if it were, in fact, alive and a real animal. Some even made an emotional connection with the “pet.” For example, one resident told staff, “I woke up today and thought, today is going to be a good day because I get to see my friend.”

For others, just holding and stroking the robopet brought “them back into a space in their life where they feel loved,” as one nursing home caretaker put it in the study.

As to whether the robopet felt “real,” one resident’s family member said that it “doesn’t matter, because I can see that the robotic cat has an impact on my dad’s quality of life.”

Besides their other benefits, robopets appeared to boost social interaction with other residents, family members and staff, often by acting as a trigger for conversation, according to the research.

“Of course, robopets are no substitute for human interaction,” she said, “but our research shows that for those who choose to engage with them, they can have a range of benefits.”

The study, which received no private industry funding, was published May 9 in the International Journal of Older People Nursing.

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