Would you give your grandmother a robot dog?

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Faced with the current Covid-19 pandemic, old people often find themselves isolated. In order to alleviate the loneliness of seniors, companies are specializing in the sale of robotic pets.

It was in 2009 that a Japanese company began to market PARO, a robotic baby seal, followed in 2015 by Hasbro and its cats, which are distributed in a few American retirement homes. Eleven years later, the health crisis has revived interest in these products, whose sales have increased.

Loneliness and social isolation are recognized as public health issues for older people, especially those with dementia. According to Laurie Orlov, who has worked in the tech industry for many years, “COVID has created a strange world in which no one can hug anymore. The tactile experience of holding an animal makes it possible to transcend this lack. ”

Divided opinions

In Texas and Kansas, 61 people with dementia and placed in nursing homes were able, for three months, to enjoy twenty-minute group sessions, three times a week, during which they had access to a seal. PARO. The study found that their anxiety was reduced, as was their need for medication to relieve pain or behavioral problems.

Other studies seem to point in the same direction. This is the case, for example, with one run by Front Porch, a non-profit senior housing provider. After acquiring several PARO animals in 2015, the company analyzed its effects using 109 surveys reporting on residents’ interactions. Six months later, staff reported that the robots had calmed the elderly and improved their social behavior, as well as their mood and appetite.

Another research, conducted by insurance company UnitedHealthcare and the non-governmental organization AARP, chose to distribute Joy for All robots, of the Hasbro brand, to 271 seniors. While all suffered from loneliness, study co-author Dr. Charoltte Yeh noted improvement in their mental health after a month or two of use.

The idea that a robot can serve as a remedy for the loneliness of the elderly does not appeal to everyone. Sherry Turkle, a psychologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, recalls in particular that the promise to forge a relationship between the person and the robotic animal cannot be kept, the latter not being alive. As for Sister Imelda Maurer, a member of the religious congregation of San Antonio, she believes that it would be dishonest and unethical to make people with dementia believe that robots are real pets.

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