Loneliness and isolation are linked to serious health issues, and older adults have a higher chance of experiencing these emotional conditions thanks to concerns such as chronic illness, the death of close friends and family, and the challenges of aging in place.1
Patients in hospice care environments, meanwhile, are at even greater risk. Ongoing pandemic pressures have severely limited the frequency and number of outside visitations allowed, including those from volunteer pet visit agencies that help connect hospice residents with cats, dogs and other emotionally-stimulating animals.
Robotic pet therapy offers a new way for hospices to bridge this care gap — but do animatronic animals really help? And if so, how do hospices effectively manage their implementation?
First, Let’s Consider the Hospice Care Disconnect
As noted by recent research from the University of Western Sydney and the University of South Florida, loneliness in care settings can have serious consequences for patients including “increased risk of depression, alcoholism, suicidal thoughts, aggressive behaviors, anxiety and impulsivity.”2 And while hospice providers are doing their best to reduce feelings of loneliness in their patients, reduced staff numbers combined with strict COVID protocols can become problematic.
Robotic pets offer a possible path to bridge this interactive gap. While the specifics vary by manufacturer, most robotic pets share similar characteristics: They’re soft and cuddly like a real cat or dog, and are capable of making sounds and reacting to human touch or aural cues. In addition, many have an electronic heartbeat to further enhance the perception that they’re living things, rather than toys or technological proofs-of-concept.3
Explore the Benefits of Robotic Pet Therapy
Animals offer a way for residents to form emotional connections that don’t require preexisting relationships or even the use of language. But with in-person pet visit services deemed non-essential in many states, some hospices have turned to robotic pet therapy as a way to foster authentic emotional connection with robotic animals.
According to Hospice News, these programs have already delivered anecdotal success with staff reporting almost instant connections between residents and robotic animals that look, feel and act like their real-life counterparts.4 In many cases, these artificial additions have also spurred more human interaction with residents sharing stories about their own childhood pets.
Research backs up this analogue advantage: In a study with dementia patients published in PubMed, treatment with robotic animals “decreased stress and anxiety in the treatment group and resulted in reductions in the use of psychoactive medications and pain medications in elderly clients with dementia.”5
Improve Robotic Pet Management Across Hospices
For hospice organizations looking to reduce resident loneliness and encourage the development of authentic interactions — even when real-life visitor or animals aren’t permitted — robotic rovers and electronic kittens offer a viable, reliable alternative.
The caveat? Effective management of these pets across hospice care facilities to ensure all residents have equal access and treatment opportunities are fairly distributed. While it’s possible to rely on paper-based processes or verbal agreements to ensure equitable pet distribution, hospices are often better-served making animatronic assets de facto members of their IDG teams. In practice, this means putting digital dogs on hospice schedules to help regulate use and make sure all residents are given the chance to cultivate emotional connections. With time, robotic animals can help hospice staff better manage issues of loneliness and isolation.
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1 CDC, “Loneliness and Social Isolation Linked to Serious Health Conditions,” November 4, 2020.
2 JAMDA, “Loneliness and Isolation in Long-term Care and the COVID-19 Pandemic,” May 2020.
3 Wired, “Robot Dogs Can Help Seniors Cope – Especially During COVID,” October 10, 2020.
4 Hospice News, “Hospices Innovating with Robotic Therapies During Pandemic,” January 28, 2021.
5 Pub Med, “The Utilization of Robotic Pets in Dementia Care,” 2017.