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Robotic Pets To The Rescue? Dementia Care Gets Innovative

By Linda Freund | April 19th, 2019

Tom Stevens pets his golden retriever Jennie. The dog squints her brown eyes.

“How are you?” Tom says.

Jennie barks in response.

This encounter, documented on YouTube, seems typical except for one important detail: Jennie is 100-percent robotic. Her bark sounds from a built-in speaker and her features are the handiwork of Jim Henson’s creature shop.

Tombot’s Jennie retails for $500 and barks on command. Image: Tombot

Tombot’s Jennie is one of a handful of robotic pets that have erupted in the marketplace, with the intent to provide therapeutic support to seniors and people with dementia.

And the robots appear to be helping in alleviating dementia symptoms. Dementia patients who regularly engage with robotic pets are less depressed and agitated, according to a study published in Psychiatry Research this past January.  

These encounters with therapeutic pets also reduce a patient’s reliance on psychotropic medications for calming. This is welcome news for dementia sufferers as regular doses of such medications can lead to a faster cognitive decline, according to multiple studies.

My mother couldn’t remember what she ate for breakfast on a given day, but she could effortlessly recall the name of her robot and what they did together that morning.

When it comes to robotic pets, the offerings are as varied as their owners. The market has expanded in two distinct directions. In one ring are the more surreal players like PARO ($6,400), a baby harp seal with tactile sensors and a playful moan and Sony’s AIBO ($2,900), a plastic puppy with LED eyes that glimmer blue, built-in cameras, and Wi-Fi.

In the other ring are the more realistic pet substitutes like Ageless Innovation’s “Joy for All” line (around $100). These cats and dogs have soft, furry bodies and mimic typical pet movements from rolling on their backs to cuddling with their owners. Finally, there’s Tombot’s Jennie (available for $500 on pre-order for May 2020 delivery), a lapdog that barks on command and has hyper-realistic facial features.

For more on the benefits of these low-maintenance pets and how the marketplace is evolving, Being Patient spoke with Tombot CEO and Co-Founder Tom Stevens. Tom was inspired to develop his therapy robot, Jennie, after his mother Nancy was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2011.  

Being Patient: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in helping care for your mother?

Tom: Certainly one of the biggest challenges was my own adjustment to my mother needing me for her day-to-day well-being. My mother was a very independent woman. My parents divorced what I was a teenager, and my mother prided herself on living alone and managing her own life.  A career special-education teacher, she was well educated, well traveled, and extremely active.

Shortly after my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, in addition to taking over her finances and overall management of her affairs, I had to make three very difficult decisions for her. The first was to move in a caregiver. By this time, my mother was not making good decisions, her house had fallen into disrepair, but she was in denial about her inability to maintain the lifestyle she had enjoyed for so many years. She was immediately resentful of her caregiver, treating her very poorly.  

The second difficult decision was to take away her car keys. Not only did she have a new person living with her, she couldn’t get away from her caregiver without someone else’s assistance.  

But by far the most difficult decision was the third one, when I had to take away her dog. My mother managed to train her dog to be aggressive towards her caregiver.  The caregiver would enter the room, the dog would growl, and my mother laughed and petted the dog, reinforcing the behavior. It wasn’t long before we had a serious problem.

All of this occurred within the first months of her Alzheimer’s diagnosis.

Being Patient: According to your website, your mother Nancy was very close to her dog Golden Bear, a two-year-old Golden Doodle. How did you navigate the difficult process of saying goodbye?

Tom: Even though removing my mother’s dog made her home safer for the caregiver, it was devastating to my mother.  For months it was all she wanted to talk about. It put a serious strain on our relationship, as she couldn’t understand her role in the problem. She missed her dog terribly, crying frequently when she thought about her loss.

It was at that time—2011—that I began investigating substitutes for live animals.

Being Patient: Substituting or rehoming an animal is easier said than done. A big issue caretakers face is knowing when the right time is to make a significant change like this, especially in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, for example. On the one hand, caretakers want to ensure the safety of the dog and their loved ones. On the other hand, they may not want to challenge their loved one’s independence prematurely or disrupt his or her support system.

Talk to us about your decision to limit your mother’s autonomy to ensure her safety.

Tom: There is no question that the life-changing decisions that need to be made early in the disease progression are the most difficult to make. The feelings of guilt involved, especially when making decisions for a parent, can be overwhelming. From speaking with hundreds of family members about these kinds of decisions, the most common sentiment is they waited too long. In my mother’s case she was so independent—stubbornly insisting everything was okay—that I was hesitant to do anything drastic. Until the day came when the decision was completely obvious. Of course, that meant it had been the right thing to do for some time.  My waiting resulted in dangerous circumstances for my mother, her caregiver and others in the community, especially when she was behind the wheel. I was very fortunate that my mother didn’t hurt herself or someone else.

Up until her last couple of months, my mother’s robot not only stimulated her memories, but provided her with a focus for creating and storing new memories. At the very end, her robot simply provided her with comfort.

My advice to everyone is to have these difficult conversations with your loved one before any disease is present. Learn about their values and what they would want you to do if that day should come. In doing so, it may ease the guilt and allow for more timely action.

Hopefully, very few people will experience the heartbreak associated with removing a live animal from a loving environment. The more common decision that is presented to seniors is what to do after a loving pet dies. Most seniors already make the choice not to replace pets.  This creates a void that can be safely and inexpensively filled with a robotic animal.

Being Patient: Some caretakers who use robotic dogs in their homes have claimed that the dogs can help stimulate memories in people with dementia? This is obviously more anecdotal, but have you seen any evidence of this?

Tom: How seniors experience dementia varies widely from person to person.  Most of the seniors with moderate to severe dementia with whom I have worked have memories that are just waiting to be triggered. Emotionally associated memories seem to persist later into the disease progression than do innocuous memories. For example, my mother couldn’t remember what she ate for breakfast on a given day, but she could effortlessly recall the name of her robot and what they did together that morning. She would also relate her activities with her robotic dog to those with live dogs she had earlier in life.  Many of her tales would astonish me, as she could accurately remember details that I had long forgotten.

Up until her last couple of months, my mother’s robot not only stimulated her memories, but provided her with a focus for creating and storing new memories. At the very end, her robot simply provided her with comfort.

Being Patient: What are some things you considered when the Tombot team, in collaboration with Jim Henson’s Creature Studio, designed your robotic dog prototype? Are there certain characteristics Jennie the dog embodies that makes her seem more realistic?

Tom: One of the most important things we learned early in our studies is the need to avoid creating a tripping hazard.  We have heard many stories of seniors with dementia falling, often times tripping over their pets. We realized that our robots should never be on the floor. That meant the behaviors we could emulate would be limited to those of a lap dog. From that point, we studied how real dogs behave and express themselves when they are laying on someone’s lap.  

Since people spend so much time in the company of dogs, we are expert at deciphering their behaviors.  Just about everyone can immediately tell the difference between a dog that is highly engaged and one that is bored and looking for something to occupy its attention. From Tombot’s studies, we learned that dogs are highly expressive in their head and neck movements.  Besides having an enormous range of neck motion (compared to humans), dogs are capable of very subtle movements: sniffing at something, listening intently, reacting with curiosity—all of which people can accurately interpret.

Tombot’s patent-pending internal architecture mimics the anatomy of a real dog, allowing us to faithfully emulate these kinds of behaviors.  Our Puppies have numerous sensors, allowing them to receive information about their environment and respond with appropriate behaviors. Since our Puppies are software upgradeable, we will continue to expand and improve the behaviors that they can perform over their lifetime.

[ Next: Good Dogs: Dementia Service Dogs Provide Patients, Caregivers With Improved Quality of Life ]

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