Dear Caregiver: If your loved one has dementia, there is an option, a concept still somewhat novel to most, that you could consider.
Health officials across the country including here in the northern Virginia region recommend we consider robotic companion pets.
Like me you may have or have had your own live pets. Or when you are out walking, jogging or shopping, you see how your neighbors absolutely love their dogs and cats. But older adults with dementia usually cannot handle a live pet. Dementia patients and other older adults with different health issues who feel isolated, respond to the purrs, soft barks and movements of the robotic companion pets.
“I have personally seen how the vast majority of the time when you provide a dog or cat to a dementia sufferer, that their whole personality changes from angry, confused, silent and agitated to calm, happy or outgoing,” says Steve Cone, Chief of Communications, Marketing and Philanthropy for Capital Caring Health.
Please do not think of robotic pets simply as toys for dementia patients. To the person with dementia, these pets are perceived as companions.
Cone continues, “A number of clinical studies have shown how very often robotic companion pets can transform dementia sufferers’ daily life pretty dramatically. They have been found to be effective for dementia sufferers up until the end stage. However, in the last final weeks of dementia when it is very advanced, nothing really works. But up until that point robotic pets really serve as a companion and friend.”
Elder care facilities in our region, Goodwin House in Alexandria for example, have residents who own or occasionally interact with a robotic companion pet.
Jessica Fredericksen, Director of Brain Health at Goodwin Living described a patient experience: “We have one resident who is very anxious, paces a lot, always looking for what is going on next, what she needs to be doing. Because the pets respond with sound and movement, they really help her to focus when she is anxious and help to stop her cycle of pacing. Sometimes, we will ask her to watch a pet for us, which helps her feel purposeful, calmer and more relaxed.”
“We had another resident who knew the robotic pets were not real. She got a kick out of them. They reminded her of something she bought her kids or grandchildren. She would take those smaller pets and put them in the basket of her walker — like a shopping basket. She would open it up and show other team members and say, ‘Look what I have. I got such a great deal on this. I am going to give it to my grandchild.’ She seemed to express joy and purpose to go shopping for her grandchildren. And it was something special to her to be able to interact with the pet.”
On a personal note, when I first learned of robotic companion pets a few months ago, I placed an order by giving a donation. I gave one puppy to a friend for her mother. Her mom enjoys her puppy, which she calls “Sweet Pea.” And a family member who is a geriatric nurse says the puppy I gave her has helped some of her patients.
Other professionals agree robotic companion pets are worth trying.
“Every family in America deals with dementia at some point and often multiple times where different family members unfortunately get dementia,” says Cone. “It is the third leading cause of death today, after heart disease and cancer. With the aging of America, the occurrences are growing. So, we wish more people knew that a robotic companion pet could help the patient and the family and all those who interact with the person who has dementia. Alleviating suffering is a wonderful outcome.”
And Fredericksen says, “The best thing that can happen is that the resident establishes a connection. They have something that helps reduce their stress. It reduces their isolation. So, it really can’t hurt to try it out.”
More information on robotic companion pets is available at www.joyforall.com and www.capitalcaring.org/robotic-companion-pets/