Robotic Companion Animals to Help Loneliness in Alzheimer’s Patients 

Updated on October 16, 2023

Chronic loneliness, a condition experienced by one-third of individuals above 65, can escalate risks of depression, heart conditions, and even untimely death. For Alzheimer’s patients, loneliness is substantially more challenging to treat than for cognitively-typical seniors. To help the 6.7 million Americans living with Alzheimer’s, we must adopt novel strategies, such as companion animal technology.

Navigating Loneliness in Alzheimer’s Patients

For cognitively-typical seniors, there are classes, meetup groups, and religious communities to help alleviate loneliness. Owning a live pet can be beneficial as well, encouraging heart-healthy exercise, social interaction, and a sense of being ‘needed.’ 

Loneliness is trickier to address in dementia sufferers. Fostering and sustaining social relationships is often challenging, and sadly, patients may not even recollect social encounters. As dementia progresses, sufferers may become increasingly withdrawn. Another barrier: Nearly 97% of community-dwelling individuals with dementia suffer from the Behavioral and Psychological Symptoms of Dementia (BPSD), ranging from anger, frustration, anxiety, hallucinations, to apathy. BPSD complicates socialization and can prove frustrating for caregivers. Unfortunately, live pets may not be feasible for dementia sufferers, as this requires a safe environment for the animal and caregivers willing to shoulder the additional burden.

Expanding the Circle of Compassion

Many Alzheimer’s patients reside in private homes, relying predominantly on unpaid family caregivers. “Aging in place” may be ideal for the patient, but such arrangements can exacerbate loneliness, stress, and financial strain on caregivers. Paid caregivers can relieve family members and provide additional companionship – but may be unaffordable to seniors on a fixed income. To make matters worse, there is currently a shortage of professional caregivers in the United States. 

One might assume that communal living – such as assisted living – would be more social for dementia patients, but this patient population struggles to engage in group activities (and BPSD symptoms may provide obstacles to other residents’ enjoyment). Merely placing dementia patients near other humans isn’t enough to cure their loneliness. Dementia sufferers require extra help, but most facilities are already struggling to staff at minimum staff-to-resident ratios. 

In light of all these complications, what can we do to help dementia patients? 

Digital companions for Dementia patients

To replicate the rewarding experiences of pet ownership or parenting, “emotional support objects” are often introduced to dementia patients. If the patient can form an emotional bond with one of these objects – traditionally a baby doll or stuffed animal – he/she could enjoy mental health benefits, such as reduced loneliness and increased social engagement. The problem is that static toys don’t usually inspire the requisite emotional connection. Sometimes, an ‘analog’ problem requires a high-tech digital solution.

Robotic and animatronic animals offer a brighter future for lonely dementia patients. These companions range from high-end products like the interactive robotic fur seal, Paro, to more budget-friendly options, such as Ageless Innovation’s “Joy For All” cats and dogs. As compared to stuffed animals, interactive animatronic and robotic products that move are substantially more engaging. In an Australian study, dementia patients found Paro to increase pleasure, verbal engagement, and reduce agitation as compared to a lookalike stuffed animal. Moreover, these digital companion animals can also stimulate interaction with other humans. As more realistic and sophisticated products – such as Tombot’s “Jennie” – become available, seniors will likely become increasingly satisfied.

Addressing an Emerging Healthcare Crisis

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed chronic loneliness as a public health emergency – particularly for the most vulnerable members of society. Dementia patients who already suffer from BPSD require more resources to alleviate loneliness. Not only is loneliness unpleasant, but loneliness itself is linked to dementia. Chronic loneliness already affects about 1 out of 3 seniors in America, and with 65 million aging Baby Boomers, this number is expected to rise. Alzheimer’s cases in America are projected to increase to 13 million by 2050 due to demographics and increased longevity.

Critics often lament that robots shouldn’t replace humans, recommending the implementation of extra caregivers. The problem is that most families are already stretched to the limit – both financially and psychologically – and assisted living/skilled nursing struggle to keep facilities adequately staffed. Moreover, robotic companion animals are not ‘replacing’ humans. Rather, they augment treatment in conjunction with human interaction. For caregivers grappling with patients with BPSD, robotic companion animals can promote happier, more relaxed engagement. This, in turn, reduces caregiver burnout and leads to a more positive working and living environment. 

This crisis in senior healthcare will require innovative solutions. We’ll need all hands on deck – as well as digital paws – to afford seniors the standard of mental well-being they deserve.

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Tom Stevens
Tom Stevens is the CEO of Tombot.