Robotic Pets Benefit Veteran Patients
A brigade of lifelike robotic pets has taken up residence in the Salisbury VA Community Living Center (CLC) in North Carolina. These pets have brought comfort, connection, and therapeutic benefits to Veterans with memory loss, dementia and depression.
Jane Roach, whose brother Richard is a CLC resident with advanced dementia, enjoyed seeing him interact with his robotic cat over their video visits during the pandemic. “He holds his cat up to the camera and wants us to say ‘hi’ to it. The cat ‘talks’ to him and he loves that,” Roach said.
As part of a Whole Health approach and VA’s commitment to Age-Friendly Health Systems, providing comforting surroundings and experiences for Veterans suffering from memory loss increases their sense of well-being.
Patients tend to calm down when they have someone or something to nurture. Having a robotic pet of “their own” provides an even deeper level of interaction, supporting efforts to manage symptoms of dementia, depression, and delirium.
Michelle Gillespie-Gray, social work supervisor for the CLC, Dr. Emelie McFarland, psychologist and STAR-VA coordinator, and Michelle Wilson, recreational therapist, worked together to bring robotic cats and dogs to the CLC. at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when residents could not receive visits from family or friends.
“Dr. (Christina) Vair, our Whole Health director, reached out and let us know there was COVID relief funding available and asked what we could use to help out CLC residents. I’d seen patients respond positively to robotic pets during my fellowship at the Durham VA, and that seed had been planted in my mind as a possibility,” Dr. McFarland explained.
Live therapy animals had been a part of the routine before the pandemic for CLC residents, but that had changed with the restrictions. “We had to think creatively throughout COVID, to make sure that our Veterans who were isolated from their families could improve their quality of life during this time,” noted Gillespie-Gray.
“The robotic pets respond to the person’s voice. For example, the little dogs will bark and turn their heads toward you and wag their tails. So, there’s an extra level of engagement,” explained Dr. McFarland. Because dementia patients usually retain long-term memories, another benefit is that the robotic pets bring up memories of childhood pets.
The battery-operated pets are so lifelike that some residents truly believe they are real. Wilson noted, “The cats even lift their paws up kind of like a cat would do. It has a heartbeat. It breathes in and out, it pants, it opens its mouth and closes its mouth. It's quite remarkable. A lot of the Veterans here with more progressed dementia, they actually think it's real. I have one gentleman that's says, ‘Come on, boy, let's go hop in the truck!’ They take care of it when they wake up in the morning. Some put it under their sinks to drink water or try to feed them from their own plates. If the pet isn’t in their room, we bring it to them and hear them say ‘Oh, I was looking for you!’”
To learn more about Whole Health, including the power of relationships and your surroundings, visit www.va.gov/wholehealth.