Robotic pets that respond to human interaction can benefit the health and wellbeing of older people living in care homes, according to a study by researchers in Devon.
The study authors said that they found evidence that so-called “robopets” could provide comfort and pleasure and reduce agitation and loneliness.
“The joy of having something to care for was a strong finding across many of the studies”
The University of Exeter study also found that robopets increased social interaction with other residents, family members and staff, often through acting as a stimulus for conversation.
Robopets are small animal-like robots which have the appearance and many of the behavioural characteristics of companion animals or pets.
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.
Five different robopets were used in the studies – Necoro and Justocat (cats), Aibo (a dog), Cuddler (a bear) and Paro (a baby seal). The latter has already been trialled in UK settings, as previously reported by Nursing Times.
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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 study authors stated: “Interactions with robopets were described as having a positive impact on aspects of well‐being including loneliness, depression and quality of life by residents and staff, although there was no corresponding statistically significant evidence from meta‐analysis for these outcomes.
“Meta‐analysis showed evidence of a reduction in agitation with the robopet “Paro” compared to control,” they said in the journal. “Not everyone had a positive experience of robopets.”
“A new wave of more affordable robopets may make them more accessible to care homes”
The researchers acknowledged that not everyone liked robopets and recommended that specific staff training around their best use might help residents get the most out of their robopet.
Knowing whether someone likes animals, or previously had a pet of their own, was also likely to impact on how much they might engage with a robopet, they said.
Lead study author Dr Rebecca Abbott, from Exeter University, 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,” she said.
Source: Care South
She added: “The joy of having something to care for was a strong finding across many of the studies.”
Study co-author Dr Noreen Orr noted that it was “not always possible” to have a real cat or a dog come into a care home, so robopets could “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,” she said.
“A new wave of more affordable robopets may make them more accessible to care homes,” she added.
The researchers recommended that future work could examine whether the benefits were short-term or sustained over time.
Commenting on the findings, care minister Caroline Dinenage said: “Technology can never replace human interaction, but this kind of research is incredibly important to help us assess its benefits.”
“I want older people to have healthier, more connected and independent lives – we are investing £98m to develop innovative new products – like robopets – services and treatments through our Ageing Society Grand Challenge,” she said.
“We have been very impressed with the results we have seen with the introduction of the robotic dogs”
Simon Bird, chief executive of Care South, which runs residential care homes in Dorset and across the South of England, said it had already seen success in using robopets.
“We have been very impressed with the results we have seen with the introduction of the robotic dogs at Kenwith Castle and so have also introduced robotic therapy animals to our other homes,” he said. “It is great to see that the research reflects our experience across our homes.”
The study was funded by the National Institute for Health Research Collaboration for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care South West Peninsula (PenCLAHRC).