Enhancing dementia care using pet robots; moving research into real-world practice
Author: Ms Wei Qi Koh, Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow, National University of Ireland Galway
Published: June 2022
Keywords: Pet robots, social robots, dementia, social health, assistive technology
What are pet robots?
Pet therapy can have health and social benefits for people living with dementia. However, using live pets may be challenging. For instance, some care facilities may not allow animals, and the behaviours of pets may not always be predictable. Pet robots are technology-based substitutes for live animals, and they look and behave like animals. Pet robots come in different designs and have different levels of interactivity and technological abilities.
One of the most well researched robots is PARO (Figure 1), a pet robot that is designed in Japan to resemble a baby harp seal. This is based on the developers’ notion that since most people do not have prior experiences with seals, they would not have preconceptions of PARO and be more accepting of it. It can respond to sounds and touch, express emotions, learn its name, and learn to respond to its’ users voices and preferences. Each unit of PARO costs approximately €6,000. Lower-cost alternatives have emerged in recent years, and one example is the Joy for All cat that was developed in the US and is available off the shelf (Figure 2) for approximately €120. The robotic cat can respond to touch and light by moving, purring or meowing. However, it is less technologically sophisticated, and cannot be programmed to respond to users in an individualised manner.
Evidence behind using pet robots for dementia care
Several studies have been conducted to understand the impact of pet robots such as PARO on older adults and people living with dementia. Research suggests that they can improve mood, social engagement, provide companionship, reduce agitation and the use of drugs to reduce the symptoms of dementia (which could lead to undesirable side effects) 1, 2. However, little is known about the impacts of low-cost pet robots.
We reviewed the literature, identified and consolidated 8 research articles that evaluated the use of low-cost pet robots for older adults and people with dementia3. Findings showed that using pet robots led to 1) Improved mood and reduced agitation, 2) Enhanced communication and social interaction, and 3) Sense of companionship.
These findings are similar to research on higher cost pet robots such as PARO, which suggests that low-cost pet robots are promising in addressing the psychosocial health of people with dementia. However, higher quality studies are needed to confirm their impact.
Are pet robots suitable for everyone?
Pet robots may not be suitable for everyone with dementia, and not everyone may feel comfortable using pet robots. People who do not like pets may not like interacting with pet robots. Some individuals with dementia have misperceived them as being real and feel anxious about providing proper care for them. While the interactive features of pet robots encouraged people with dementia to interact with them, some of these features have also caused distress. For example, the sounds could lead people with dementia to feel concerned about the pet robot’s wellbeing. Studies have also reported that pet robots have led to agitation among few individuals with dementia. In care facilities where pet robots were used in group settings, some also expressed jealousy in sharing pet robots. Care staff have also expressed concerns about hygiene and infection control in sharing pet robots amongst people with dementia.
Moving pet robot research into real-world practice
While many studies have been conducted to understand the impacts of pet robots, there is a lack of understanding how this research can be translated into practice in real-world settings. We reviewed the literature4, identified and consolidated 53 research articles that reported on barriers and facilitators to the implementation of social robots (including pet robots) for older adults and people with dementia. We found that these studies have been disproportionately focused on examining barriers and facilitators relating to the characteristics of the robots, such as their design. However, other contextual factors that can affect the adoption of pet robots in real-world practice, such as external policies, have not been explicitly explored.
Pet robots are gaining momentum as a technology-based intervention to support the psychosocial health of people living with dementia. Research on pet robots continues to grow. We have discussed about our research to understand the potential of low-cost pet robots, and the barriers and facilitators to translating pet robots from research to real-world settings. Our key messages are as follows:
- Pet robots, including low-cost robots, may benefit the psychosocial health of people living with dementia.
- Pet robots may not be suitable for everyone.
- More research is needed to understand the barriers and facilitators to implementing pet robots in care settings for people with dementia.
- Multilevel factors, such as organisational factors and external factors, should be thoroughly considered.
To continue reading about pet robots see the blog article, ‘Dementia & Technology; tools that can help maintain our relationships are worth exploring’, by Viktoria Hoel, Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow, University of Bremen, visiting Institute for Public Health and Nursing Research, National University Galway Ireland.
1. Pu LH, Moyle W, Jones C, et al. The Effectiveness of Social Robots for Older Adults: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Studies. Gerontologist 2019;59(1):E37-E51. Doi: 10.1093/geront/gny046
2. Abbott R, Orr N, McGill P, et al. How do “robopets” impact the health and well-being of residents in care homes? A systematic review of qualitative and quantitative evidence. International Journal of Older People Nursing 2019;14(3) doi: 10.1111/opn.12239
3. Koh WQ, Ang FXH, Casey D. Impacts of low-cost robotic pets for older adults and people with dementia: scoping review. JMIR rehabilitation and assistive technologies 2021;8(1):e25340. [Accessed 23 May 2022]
4. Koh WQ, Felding SA, Budak KB, et al. Barriers and facilitators to the implementation of social robots for older adults and people with dementia: a scoping review. BMC geriatrics 2021;21(1):1-17. [Accessed 23 May 2022]
Meet the author: Ms Wei Qi Koh, Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow, National University of Ireland Galway
Wei Qi Koh is a registered occupational therapist with clinical experience working in different health and social care settings in Singapore. Her interest in research was founded in clinical work, where she saw research as an avenue to advocate for patient-centred practice and meaningful activity engagement for older adults. Wei Qi was awarded with a Marie-Curie Fellowship within the DISTINCT (Dementia: Intersectoral Strategy for Training and Innovation Network for Current Technology) consortium and moved to Ireland in 2019. She is currently working on her PhD in the National University of Ireland Galway, where her project is focused on developing recommendations for the implementation of pet robots for people with dementia.