Tech for Seniors: Robotic Pets & Virtual Reality

Senior Care

Almost all of us engage with technology in our daily lives – seniors included! Technological innovation can benefit, and has benefitted, seniors in many ways. We’ve talked before on the blog about how it can help seniors stay safe in their homes , and about how virtual spaces can provide seniors with both entertainment and opportunities to socialize . 

Since technological developments are always moving forward, we thought it was time to revisit the topic and address two forms of technology that are gaining popularity, particularly when it comes to usage by seniors: robotic pets and virtual reality.

Potential Benefits

Studies have shown that pet ownership is good for our health: it’s been “associated with lower blood pressure, lower heart rate, and faster recovery during mental stress.” The benefits of interacting with animals have been found to be “particularly apparent with populations in elder-care institutions and assisted-living facilities, such as older adults with no cognitive impairment, with dementia, requiring the use of wheelchairs or walkers, and with mental illness.”

However, as we’ve already discussed on the blog , pet ownership is not always realistic for seniors for a variety of reasons. Seniors with limited mobility or dementia may not be able to keep up with the care another creature requires. Technological innovation has come up with a solution that’s meant to provide all the feelings of relaxation and comfort one might get from interacting with a companion animal, with none of the caretaking work involved: robotic pets. 

As loneliness is increasingly endemic in our senior population – particularly now, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, when physical interaction is especially limited – robotic pets offer the opportunity to have a “tactile experience” with a furry companion. 

And robotic pets do seem to be helping seniors with loneliness and other negative feelings. A pilot project in New York found that 70% of its participants “report[ed] a decrease in isolation after one year.” Similarly, seniors with dementia who spent time with robotic pets experienced “lower levels of depression and agitation.” These positive results will likely encourage more seniors and their families to explore the possibility of purchasing a robotic pet. 

Potential Challenges

Price is a barrier to access when it comes to robotic pets. Robotic seal PARO and robotic dog Aibo cost thousands of dollars. Tombot , designed by Tom Stevens with his own mother in mind , is priced at $449 USD. The most affordable robotic pets are available from Joy For All , ranging in price from $65 to $130 – though Joy For All’s robotic companions are not as realistic as their more expensive counterparts. Some long term care facilities have invested in robotic pets for their residents, but not all. For seniors living at home, access to a robotic pet will depend on their own ability or inability to afford one. 

We should also be mindful of the potential that our society may be tempted to choose “machine care” over “human care” for our elderly population. This may be the preferred option during the COVID-19 pandemic to keep seniors safe and well, but in the absence of a pandemic, “detailed and caring human interaction” is far superior to interaction with a robot, according to robot ethics scholars Noel and Amanda Sharkey. 

It’s important that we do not feel that time spent with a robotic pet is an adequate substitute for time spent with another human being. Those who study technology ethics argue that we should consider implementing “legal restrictions on how long seniors can be left without human contact” in care facilities. For those of us who have senior loved ones living in their own homes, the onus is on us to make sure to not use the presence of a robotic pet in the home as an excuse not to visit with or provide care for our loved ones. We should view robotic pets as an enhancement to seniors’ lives, not a replacement for human contact. 

Potential Benefits

As with robotic pets, recent studies are showing the positive effects of introducing virtual reality (VR) experiences into seniors’ lives. One study found numerous improvements including in “overall perceived health [and] perceived social well-being,” along with greater relaxation, an increased ability to handle stress, reduced signs of depression, and decreased isolation. 

Dr. Sonya Kim, a former ER doctor who works with seniors and VR, notes that published research papers show “proven positive clinical outcomes using VR in managing chronic pain, anxiety, and depression,” all of which are commonly experienced by seniors with dementia. VR can introduce seniors with dementia, who might feel “confused about their surroundings or who they are,” to virtual environments that they find comforting. 

Another benefit of VR for seniors with Alzheimer’s or dementia is its use in “reminiscence therapy, ” which involves introducing people to pleasant objects, sounds, or pictures from their pasts. With VR, seniors can experience all three at once. Some VR companies even offer “personalized virtual reality itineraries” that allow the user(s) to explore places that are familiar to them. 

The director of one medical VR program notes that one “nightmare” situation for seniors is having to “see the same four walls all the time.” VR offers the opportunity to see and experience other spaces. The AARP has created Alcove , a VR app that allows family members to congregate in the same virtual space – a possibility that’s especially valuable as families are practicing physical distancing during the pandemic. Other VR programs that are run in nursing homes allow several residents to participate at once, “sharing their feelings and experience with those around them [which] create[s] a sense of community which can counteract feelings of loneliness.” 

Potential Challenges

The challenges VR poses are not unlike the challenges seniors and their families might encounter when it comes to robotic pets. VR is another form of technology that requires financial investment. It is available in some nursing homes and care facilities, but not all. In some areas, you might find private VR services like those Dr. Sonya Kim offers in her clients’ homes. 

But for the most part, seniors who wish to use VR at home will have to invest in a VR headset, which is not inexpensive. If a family wants to use the AARP’s Alcove app to connect in a virtual space, they’ll need to invest in several headsets. Cost can, therefore, be a significant barrier to using VR. 

Just as with robotic pets, it’s important not to substitute virtual reality experiences for real-world experiences in seniors’ lives. VR can create soothing and connective experiences for seniors, but they should not spend hours on end in virtual environments. Technology can provide comfort for seniors, and even encourage continued discussion after the session, but it should never be treated as a substitute for meaningful moments of human connection.