In recent months, older adult service providers have continued to look for ways to address social isolation and loneliness, as awareness of these issues has increased. Under consideration are new technologies and new approaches that can mitigate the impacts of COVID-19 isolation, including mental health impacts. The idea of using animatronics may seem like an unconventional approach to the issue—and it has encountered some skepticism and even a bit of technophobia—but research has shown that robotic pets, also called “carefree companion pets,” can have positive impacts on mood and well-being. Here in King County, the new Furry Friends program is now bringing carefree companion pets to older adults experiencing loneliness or dementia.
The Aging and Long-Term Supports Administration (ALTSA) at the State Department of Social and Health Services has partnered with Ageless Innovation and with Area Agencies on Aging (AAAs), including Aging and Disability Services, to implement the Furry Friends program. ALTSA identified funding to purchase 350 “silver cats” and 350 “freckled pups,” which have been distributed to AAAs and partners across the state.
“Many of our state’s older adults experience social isolation that was only made worse by the ongoing pandemic,” said Susan Engels, the State Unit on Aging Office Chief at ALTSA. “I’m so pleased that we’re now able to offer some additional comfort and support to these folks through the distribution of robotic pets.”
While the program is just getting started here, it has shown promise in other states, including New York, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. The pets have been shown to reduce feelings of depression, isolation, and loneliness; provide an engaging and calming experience without the use of medication; improve cognitive activity; and help provide a sense of purpose. The pets have also been shown to benefit caregivers.
At the Southeast Seattle Senior Center (SESSC), one of the local partners for the program, staff were excited when the pets arrived via FedEx last month. During the COVID-19 pandemic, “seniors were afraid to go out,” said Kate Harkins, who coordinates community engagement and volunteer activities at SESSC. “We have seen their loneliness lead to depression and lower self-care. Our seniors are so excited about this new ‘friend,’ and many signed up to receive one very quickly. This is a creative and COVID-safe way to bring some fun and warmth into seniors’ lives.”
As more agencies receive pets and distribute them to older adult clients, Aging and Disability Services staff and ALTSA staff will monitor the program to better understand their health impact on older adults. Over 100 of the 700 pets will be distributed in King County. So far, demand has been high enough that additional follow-up orders are likely. While animatronics might not solve the problem of social isolation, they are a soft, cuddly, and effective tool in our social connectivity and health promotion toolbox.
Contributor Jon Morrison Winters is a senior planner at Aging and Disability Services.
Photo credit (top): Screenshot from “Robotic Pets Are Helping Dementia Patients,” a four-minute HBO video story about the use of robotic pets at Benchmark Senior Living in Plymouth Crossings, MA.