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31st October 2019

Robotic Pets for People with Dementia: Are we Barking up the Wrong Tree?


I recently read a social care report about the increasing use of robotic technology in health care. The report highlighted that people with dementia found Alexa’s voice confusing and even distressing when it was set up to remind them to take medication. Even a simple call system can be confusing with one lady pressing the button when she wanted a coffee. It raised concerns about taking away human contact and entrusting aspects of physical and emotional care to robots. This got me thinking about the increasing use of robotic pets as therapy for people with dementia. Is there a role for them?

They seem to be appearing more and more in care homes and although some of them seem a bit creepy to me (rigid and lifeless like a piece of taxidermy) there is no doubt that some people form an attachment and do benefit from them. The first one I ever saw was 20 years ago while working on a hospital ward. It was a very endearing teddy whose tummy moved up and down as he snored.  He commanded a lot of attention from nurses and visitors so as well as providing comfort and distraction for his owner (an elderly lady with dementia) he also increased social contact as people came to admire and stroke him. These automated furry friends are improving all the time and becoming more interactive. Some of them have a heartbeat you can feel and respond to calls and whistles by turning their head or wagging their tail. The most high-tech one that I have read about, but not got my hands on, is a furry seal that looks like a child’s toy but is full of clever technology, including 5 sensors to detect touch, light, sound, temperature and posture. It responds to being petted and to its name and greetings. Studies have shown that this biofeedback can reduce anxiety and even the use of pain medication.

They can be effective for providing companionship and fun, reducing anxiety but are they better than real pets? They don’t need taking for walk, there’s no vets bills, you don’t need poo bags and you don’t have to feed them. Although I have seen people try to feed them and then there is the problem of trying to sneak them away to wash them.

However good the technology is, there is no spontaneity with a robotic pet and people need varied stimulation to keep hem interested. A real dog will spontaneously lick someone’s hand or put its head in their lap in response to an emotional cue.

Robotic pets can be very expensive, but there can still be some benefit to using traditional soft toys or dolls as therapy to ease anxiety or provide companionship, particularly the ones that are softer and more lifelike. The weight and warmth of a hot water bottle to cuddle can be comforting to someone in the later stages of dementia or a bean bag cushion with a furry cover can provide tactile stimulation.

Robotic pets and gadgets should never replace human contact but perhaps they have a place if used carefully and benefits what we already have.

*All information is correct at the time of publishing. Use of this material is subject to your acceptance of our terms and conditions.

Katie Farrar

Occupational Therapist

Katie qualified as an Occupational Therapist in the year 2000. For most of her professional career she has worked in the field of older people’s mental health services within community mental health teams. As part of this she has had extensive involvement with people with dementia and their carers, both in the community and in care home settings. Katie is currently working with the Dementia Pathway Team supporting people with dementia in the care home setting and particularly with advanced care planning for end of life care. She has also recently completed the Mental Health Act Best Interest Assessor Course at Leeds Beckett University. Katie has developed and delivered training to care homes on dementia awareness, managing delirium and managing challenging behaviour. As well, she has supported carers to offer meaningful activities and experiences and provided guidance to care homes on improving environments to become dementia friendly. Read more

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