Robotic cat delights dementia patients at St. Ann’s Community

By Gino Fanelli
Rochester Business Journal
December 29, 2017


What brands com e to mind when you think of medical technology? Bayer? Pfizer? Siemens Healthineers?

Certainly you could go down the list and still never come up with Hasbro. The toy producer known for G.I. Joe and Transformers doesn’t scream medical ingenuity, and its newest line of robotic tabby cats, complete with flowing fur and lifelike meows and purrs triggered by nearby voices, doesn’t quite trigger clinical thoughts.

However, at St. Ann’s Community, these robotic animals are showing true promise with the vulnerable clientele that call the community home. Eighty-five percent of the residents at St. Ann’s have been diagnosed with some form of dementia, and for those patients, a dose of companionship has been shown to be invaluable in improving quality of life.

Therapy animals, of course, are nothing new. St. Ann’s in the past has played host to flesh-and-blood cats and dogs to keep their residents company. The move to robotic animals, however, is a new innovation that has been picking up speed. As the New York Times reported in 2016, Bronx’s Hebrew Home began introducing robotic cats to abate feelings of isolation in memory care patients. St. Ann’s is the first in the Rochester area to begin using robotics, and the results have already spoken for themselves.

“There’s a focus here on Alzheimer’s and dementia, because often you’ll find patients in an agitated state, and so some level of this is the calmness. That was the thought process behind it,” said Michael Larche, Chief Technology Officer for St. Ann’s. “And early results have been positive, not just from a patient’s perspective, which is obviously very important, but also on the staff.”

The soothing effect of some lap time with these robotic cats is enough, Larche said, to often soothe agitation, a win-win for both patients and staff.

“She just lit up, and her world that seemed to be confusing to her at the moment all of a sudden came into focus.”
St. Ann’s CEO Michael E. McRae

Recent studies have shown promise in the use of robotic animals with memory compromised patients. A study by Wendy Moyle of Australia’s Griffith University, released in August, looked to study the impact of introducing “Paro,” a robotic seal, to 415 dementia patients. Over the course of 10 weeks, residents were monitored interacting with Paro, which responds to touch, temperature and vocal cues, and a non-robotic, plush version of Paro. While Paro was not found to be able to replace routine care, it did show potential to curb agitation in the short-term more effectively than the plush toy, which also showed some potential.

While Paro costs $5,000, Hasbro’s robotic cats retail for just under $100. That means a recent $1,000 donation to St. Ann’s goes quite a long way for a program showing real promise to change the quality of life for dementia patients, as Recreation Therapist Jamie Barbara explained.

“I would go to the resident with the robotic animal already turned on, and the response that I got was the residents thought the cat was real, and this was an actual cat I was bringing to spend time with them,” Barbara said. “A lot of times, residents would put out their arms to hold it, touch the car and make interested noises, when throughout the day they don’t do that. They don’t spark interactions with other residents and staff, but with an animal–everyone wants to touch an animal when they see one.”

Part of Barbara’s job includes studying the behavioral impact of the animals on the patients, and the results thus far, she said, have been stunning.

“Residents who said no, they don’t like animals, will interact with it and carry the cat around all the time,” Barbara said. “It aids with sleeping as well. We use that as intervention for one resident who wanders around all night, but as soon as she gets the cat, she’ll go to her room, sit down, pet the cat and fall asleep.”

The comfort provided by the cats, as Barbara has seen, is not limited to dementia patients either.

“I did bring this over to TCC (Transitional Care Center) when one resident was saying she missed her cat so much, and she did not have dementia,” Barbara said. “And she just lit up, and thought it was almost hilarious how realistic this cat was. Her family loved it, too, because her mood was so positive, when before it was negative: ‘I don’t want to be here, I want to go home,’ then she was laughing and smiling with this robotic cat, even though she knew it wasn’t real.”

St. Ann’s has ordered three more cats so far to join the one gray and white one used in the unit—one orange to be named Charlie, in honor of St. Ann’s recently retired 16-year-old tabby.

The robot lies in a bed just like any other cat when not in use, and yet is always up for a cuddle and a good pet. That type of stability and dependability can play a massive role in improving the quality of life for memory compromised patients.

“I went up on one of the floors, unbeknownst to me, as the staff was pulling out the cat and giving it to a resident that was a little agitated, or preoccupied I guess, and her eyes as big as diamonds,” said St. Ann’s CEO Michael E. McRae. “She just lit up, and her world that seemed to be confusing to her at the moment all of a sudden came into focus, came into check, came into reality. She was able to sit there and the attention she was able to give that cat transformed her in front of my eyes.”

The residents of St. Ann’s are no different than other doting pet owners who like to stroke their fingers through their feline’s silken fur. They are a testament to the all-too-human behavior—when the mind runs astray, we seek shelter in literal, although in St Ann’s case artificial, creature comforts.

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