Numerous studies show that spending time with a pet has significant mental and physical health benefits for individuals with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias (ADRD). Many long-term care facilities now house dogs and cats to provide pet therapy for residents with ADRD.  

However, live companion animals remain impractical for most adult daycare facilities that serve older community members. A new study, published in the journal Issues in Mental Health Nursing, found that interactive robotic cats improved mood, behavior, and cognition in ADRD patients when used in a daycare setting. 

Dementia research has previously studied robotic pets with somewhat mixed results. Still, another recent literature review determined that robot animals had as much benefit on ADRD-related psychosocial issues as other types of social robots. And during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Joy For All Companion Pets distributed by researchers helped seniors combat the negative impact of increased isolation

Joy For All provided animatronic cats for the new study, conducted by researchers at the Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing at Florida Atlantic University. The cats have built-in sensors that respond to petting, hugging, and motion. Realistic movements, meow, and purring sounds (accompanied by vibration) help make the robots convincingly lifelike.

Study participants spent time with the cats at an adult daycare center over 12 visits. Over time, interacting with the animatronic pets improved the mood of all participants, with significant increases in scores on the Cornell Scale of Depression in Dementia and other emotional scoring tools designed for ADRD. More than 50% showed improved cognition scores, including attention, calculation, and language, scoring six points higher on post-intervention tests than pre-tests.

A more poignant illustration of these results is evident in specific behaviors observed by the researchers, suggesting the robots helped ease distress for some participants. One participant who typically asked for her daughter over and over during daycare did so with less frequency during sessions with the therapeutic robots. 

Another participant became deeply upset when separated from her friend during a therapy session. However, petting and brushing the cat had a calming effect. Researchers heard her say “this is wonderful” and “thank you, my love” to the cat; by the time she rejoined her friend after the session, she felt happy.

Critics have expressed ethical concerns about the use of therapeutic robot animals in ADRD care. (All participants in the study were told the pets were robotic, but the nature of ADRD means retaining this info isn’t guaranteed.) Some have raised concerns about deceiving adults with dementia who may not understand that the robots aren’t real animals. 

Replacing real human interaction with therapeutic robots may highlight a more systemic issue: the way modern, Western society treats aging citizens in general. This is certainly a valid concern, highlighted by the prevalence of mental health conditions associated with loneliness and isolation in older U.S. adults. Almost 5% of adults over 50 have depression, and the condition affects nearly 40% of people with mild, moderate, or severe dementia

Regardless of the moral implications, the study adds to a body of research indicating that robotic technology has the power to reduce the suffering of seniors with dementia. In addition to significant mental anguish, depression and other mood disorders contribute to a more rapid cognitive and physical decline in ADRD patients. 

Both compassion and practicality will likely contribute to expanding the use of robot companions in ADRD treatment. Affordable robot animals providing effective pet therapy in daycare settings may help seniors with ADRD continue living in their communities — and with their families — rather than requiring residential care.