Robotic pets that respond to human interaction can benefit the health and wellbeing of older people living in care homes, a study has found, attracting national and regional media coverage and an assurance from Minister for Care, Caroline Dinenage that the government “are investing £98 million to develop innovative new products – like robopets – services and treatments” for an ageing population.
Researchers found evidence that ‘robopets’ can provide pleasure and joy, reduce agitation and loneliness and increase feelings of comfort and safety in those living in care homes. Funded by NIHR Collaboration for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care South West Peninsula (PenCLAHRC), the study, carried out by PenCLAHRC’s Evidence Synthesis Team also found that robopets could increase social interaction with other residents, family members and staff, often by acting as a stimulus for conversation. A family member taking part in the review said “The robot cat has given us meaning in our communication” (Gustafsson et al 2016).
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.
Lead author Dr Rebecca Abbott said: “Although not every care home resident may choose to interact with robopets, for those who do, they appear to offer many benefits. 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. The joy of having something to care for was a strong finding across many of the studies.”
Robopets are small animal-like robots which have the appearance and many of the behavioural characteristics of companion animals or pets. Five different robopets were used in the studies – Necoro and Justocat (cats), Aibo (a dog), Cuddler (a bear) and Paro (a baby seal). Some of the studies were on older people’s experiences of interacting with the robopets, while others sought to measure impact on factors such as agitation, loneliness and social interaction.
The researchers acknowledged that not everyone liked robopets, and recommended that specific staff training around best use may help residents get the most out of their robopet. Knowing whether someone likes animals, or previously had a pet of their own, is also likely to impact on how much they might engage with a robopet.
Co-author Dr Noreen Orr said: “It is not always possible to have a cat or a dog come into a care home, so robopets can offer a good alternative. Of course robopets are no substitute for human interaction, but our research shows that for those who choose to engage with them, they can have a range of benefits. A new wave of more affordable robopets may make them more accessible to care homes.”
The researchers recommended that future work could examine whether the benefits are short-term or sustained over time.
The paper How do “robopets” impact the health and wellbeing of residents in care homes? A systematic review of qualitative and quantitative evidence
The briefing paper The Woofington Post