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Robotic pets could make great companions for care home residents

A new study from the University of Exeter has found that “robopets” can reduce feelings of loneliness and agitation among older adults in care homes. The researchers are reporting that interactions with small, animal-like robots may even provide comfort and pleasure.

A review of nearly 20 studies involving 900 care home residents has revealed that robotic pets can increase social interaction with other residents, family members, and staff by serving as a stimulus for conversation.

“Although not every care home resident may choose to interact with robopets, for those who do, they appear to offer many benefits,” said study lead author Dr. Rebecca Abbott.

“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.”

In their appearance and behavior, robopets mimic the characteristics of pets and companion animals. Five different types of robopets were examined in the studies, including a dog named Aibo, a baby seal named Paro, a bear named Cuddler, and two cats named Necoro and Justocat.

According to the researchers, staff training may help residents get the most out of their robopet. Individuals who have a special regard for animals or who previously had pets of their own are more likely to engage with the robots.

“It is not always possible to have a cat or a dog come into a care home, so robopets can offer a good alternative,” said study co-author Dr. Noreen Orr. “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 experts said that further research is needed to determine whether the benefits of robotic pets are short-term or long-term.

“Modern technology has the amazing capacity to improve people’s health and wellbeing and revolutionise the care they receive. Technology can never replace human interaction, but this kind of research is incredibly important to help us assess its benefits,” said Caroline Dinenage.

“I want older people to have healthier, more connected and independent lives – we are investing £98 million to develop innovative new products – like robopets – services and treatments through our Ageing Society Grand Challenge.”

The study is published in the International Journal of Older People Nursing.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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