Data from 19 studies suggest emotional benefits for those living in homes, but stress that the simulated pets won't be accepted by every senior.

Meta-analysis: Robopets can reduce loneliness, increase wellness among seniors who engage with them

By Dave Muoio
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Aging adults living in care homes who are given and engage with robotic pets often experience health and quality of life benefits, according to a recent meta-analysis of 19 studies examining the devices.

These findings are primarily based on qualitative responses collected during the included studies. While most quantitative data obtained in the review generally supported this trend, all but an analysis of agitation reduction was not statistically significant. The researchers also stressed that not all seniors engage with the simulated pets, and warned that “some older adults, families and nursing staff might actively dislike them.”

TOPLINE DATA

Of the 19 included papers, 10 were qualitative analyses, two were mixed methods and seven were randomized trials. These included investigations of five types of pets: robotic seal Paro, robotic cats JustoCat and NeCoRo, robotic dog Aibo and teddy bear CuDDler.

Qualitative studies revealed a number of common themes. In terms of positives, some examples include reduced loneliness, entertainment, increased social contact and emotional bonding among residents, usefulness and appreciation of value among care staff and family. Some barriers were also reported by participating seniors in regard to the devices’ toy-like appearances, “irritating” sensory experiences and anxiety from caring about the devices too much, while staff noted the cost, need for training and infantilization of patients that were inherent to the pets.

Quantitative analyses were more focused on specific outcomes among seniors. Of these, a reduction in seniors’ agitation was the only outcome that was statistically significant across the studies, and come from two investigations that saw a benefit among those given a Paro robotic seal. Other investigations suggested benefits to seniors’ loneliness and quality of life, although these effects were not significant across the trials.

Taking these approaches together, the researchers noted that the wide range of positive and negative responses to the pets could be a factor in the mixed quantitative results — particularly when considering whether or not those respondents engaged with their pet.

"Although not every care home resident may choose to interact with robopets, for those who do, they appear to offer many benefits,” Dr. Rebecca Abbott, senior research fellow at the University of Exeter Medical School and the study’s lead author, said in a statement. “Some of these are around stimulating conversations or triggering memories of their own pets or past experiences, and there is also the comfort of touching or interacting with the robopet itself. The joy of having something to care for was a strong finding across many of the studies."

HOW IT WAS DONE

The researchers conducted a literature search of several research databases, and selected studies that reported either the views, experiences and perceptions of care home residents, staff and families; or the effects of robotic pets on specific outcomes.

When examining the qualitative studies, the researchers focused on six consistent components (pet-resident engagement, resident, person-person interaction, perceived impact on resident quality of life, staff and family appreciation, challenges), as well as a set of sub-themes relevant to each section. Quantitative studies were subject to random effect meta-analyses for each similar outcome. The researchers then synthesized data from both categories by mapping their findings to an a priori logic model, which was iterated upon over the course of the study to highlight overlaps in data.

WHAT’S THE HISTORY

Robots, both intelligent and simplified, have long been proposed as an approach to engaging isolated seniors and providing emotional support. Further, some researchers are investigating how these simulated pets could be augmented to assist with specific tasks, such as locating objects or taking medications.

IN CONCLUSION

“Together the findings indicate that robopets, for those that engage and interact with them, appear to have the potential to impact favorably on outcomes such as loneliness and agitation. The evidence to data, however, comes from studies of low to moderate quality and is both diverse and complex. Understanding more about their long-term impact and the implications for implementation is required before robopets could be considered for routine use with older adults in residential care,” the researchers concluded.

Focus on Patient Experience

In May, we'll talk to the thought leaders and first-movers reimagining how and where — Hint: outside their perimeter — and report on how they're to activate if not delight the people they treat.

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