September 04. 2018 8:44PM

Robotic comfort animals bring relief to hospice, dementia patients

By ROBERTA BAKER
New Hampshire Union Leader


Betty Adams interacts with Tinkerbell the robotic cat with help from hospice volunteer Beth Carson at Greenbriar HealthCare in Nashua. Visits with robotic animals appear to be therapeutic for both Alzheimer's and hospice patients, caregivers say. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

Betty Adams, 85, a hospice patient with later-stage dementia, has had a difficult morning, but she brightens and becomes animated when Tinkerbell, a robotic cat, curls up in her lap.

It doesn’t matter that its fur feels fake, or that its repetitive movements are somewhat jerky, prompted by touches to sensors on its head, chin and back. It purrs, meows, blinks its eyes, and licks a raised paw. To her, the mechanical creature is a comforting, engaging, and affectionate companion — and a link to happier times.

“What a nice doggy you are, a good boy, yeah,” says Adams, patting its ears and head. In response, the animatronic pet blinks its blue eyes and gazes at Adams. “He missed me, is right. I missed him, too.”

Twice a month, Beth Carson of Hudson, the robotic cat’s handler, and Anne Olasz, both volunteers at Home Health and Hospice Care in Merrimack, visit Adams at Greenbriar HealthCare, a nursing home on Harris Road in Nashua.

The visits are bright spots in a month that might otherwise pass in a blur of meals, medication and napping — if it weren’t for the hospice volunteers who come regularly, offering services ranging from grief counseling and companionship during a person’s final hours to music therapy, conversation without pressure or expectations, lap quilts with trinkets to keep anxious hands busy, and pet therapy from dogs, miniature horses and robotic cats.

Home Health Care and Hospice’s 215 to 250 volunteers visit dying patients in homes, hospitals, nursing homes and hospice houses in southern New Hampshire, offering perhaps the widest array of comfort-giving services in the state — at a time when paid care givers and companions are increasingly hard to find and families are stretched to their emotional limits, burdened by the stresses of supporting and preparing for a loved one’s demise.

A sense of well-being

The robotic cats bring joy, anxiety relief, and pleasant memories to elderly hospice patients, many of whom are alone and mostly silent. They’re part of a program of sensory stimulation designed to treat those struggling with memory loss and end-stage physical illness with non-drug interventions that bring pleasure and distraction from worries and physical irritation, and spark communication and sharing with others — including family members that make them emotionally tongue-tied.

Extensive research into the use of robotic comfort animals with elders shows that the benefits derived from interacting with artificial creatures mirror many of the rewards of interacting with live ones. The physical and emotional responses are surprisingly similar. Blood pressure is lowered. Heart rates decrease.

Interactions with robotic pets settle the physical and emotional symptoms of anxiety and provide a sense of well-being, says Tanya Prather, manager of volunteer services for Home Health and Hospice Care: “The happy endorphins go off.”

“It provides pleasure. They get excited when they see it,” says Carson, who purchased the robotic cat, made by Hasbro, for roughly $100 on Amazon, after hearing how much joy a similar model brought a co-worker’s mother with dementia. Since January 2017, Carson has provided 68 robotic cat therapy visits to patients in hospice. She has also performed 162 vigils, quietly sitting and comforting dying patents during their final hours.

“I love what I do — being there when nobody else is,” Carson says. “Nobody wants to be alone.”

‘I had a cat visit today’

Visits with robotic animals appear to be therapeutic for both Alzheimer’s and hospice patients, caregivers report. They’re also powerful mood changers.

Olasz says Adams was angry and depressed before Tinkerbell arrived, and the staff wasn’t sure she would agree to the visit.

Her hands are too shaky to grasp the toy plastic comb to groom the cat’s long white fur, but the robotic cat purrs and blinks with her gentle touch. “You’re having a rough day? What’s the matter?” Adams says tenderly. “Tell me what happened. Nice baby.” Tinkerbell raises one paw. “You want to run around outside with the other dogs? OK, you stay with me. Nobody’s going to bother you.”

Prather says mechanical creatures can be effective with dementia patients, who don’t perceive that they’re not real — or even that they’re feline — but benefit from the social interaction and tactile immersion they provide.

“You can see by the ways Betty interacts that she’s had animals in the past. Whether she can verbalize or not, it brings her back to that experience and memory,” Prather says. “Some people will tell stories about the dog or cat they had. It’s an ice-breaker and a distraction. And it’s calming because it’s a tactile, physical and non-judgmental presence. Sometimes they give it the name of the animal they had. That’s fine — just as long as they interact.”

One client at Aynsley Place, an assisted living facility nearby on Lake Street, grew up on a farm and loved that the battery-operated cat could chase the nurse, Carson says. Residents will say, “I had a cat visit today.” They provide a topic for mealtime conversation.

Some hospice and dementia patients have reacted so favorably that family members purchased robotic cats for them to interact with at home.

Silver Linings is a continuing Union Leader/Sunday News report focusing on the issues of New Hampshire’s aging population and seeking out solutions. Union Leader reporter Roberta Baker would like to hear from readers about issues related to aging. She can be reached at rbaker@unionleader.com or (603) 206-1514. See more at www.unionleader.com/aging. This series is funded through a grant from the Endowment for Health.