A robotic baby seal is being used as an innovative way of helping bring love and affection into the confused and often frustrated lives of dementia patients in Brighton.
“Paro” the seal pup has been purchased by the University of Brighton to test its effects on patients.
So far, the university said it was proving beneficial, and that families were seeing smiles and happiness in the faces of their loved ones.
The research is being conducted by Dr Penny Dodds, a nurse lecturer practitioner who is also works at Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust.
Therapists and nurses are trying out the cuddly robot on the trust’s dementia wards in Worthing.
The Japanese-designed robot harp seal cost £4,000 and has built-in sensors to react to sound and touch.
It reacts to being stroked and spoken to – wriggling, turning to the patient, opening its eyes and squeaking. The artificial intelligence also allows it to “learn” and respond to names patients give it.
“We have seen Paro helping relax a patient when they have become upset and distressed”
Research into Paro’s usefulness is continuing and Dr Dodds said she may yet find a more effective and cheaper reactive cuddly toy, but so far she believes Paro is value for money.
She said: “It is similar to pet therapy but with real animals and pets there is a hygiene issue and a remote risk of the animal biting or chasing. Paro always behaves, has rechargeable batteries, is always available, and will last about 12 years.
“The most important aspect is the difference Paro makes to a patient’s quality of life,” she said. “We have seen Paro helping relax a patient when they have become upset and distressed.
“Maintaining calmness makes life more pleasant for the patient and for staff, and it can avoid the need to use medication, so there is also a financial saving,” she said.
Dr Dodds, whose father died recently after developing dementia, added: “Anything that has a positive psychological effect and makes patients feel comforted and less distressed has to be worth it.”
The research was featured in an episode of the BBC Radio 4 consumer affairs programme You and Yours on 16 February.