HELENA, Mont. — Even during normal years, many senior citizens face a constant struggle with loneliness and isolation. And both issues have been exacerbated in the time of COVID-19.
With social isolation now being encouraged and in some cases required to help prevent the spread of the virus, Helena’s Area IV Agency On Aging is utilizing a new tool to help seniors combat loneliness: robotic pets. These uncanny creatures take the form of battery-powered dogs and cats, which stimulate the same parts of the brain as real-life pets.
Jim Marks, program director for Helena’s Agency On Aging, said he discovered the potential of these robotic pets through research by the organization’s nationwide counterpart.
“Studies show that older people latch onto them,” Marks told the Independent Record. “It’s a feel-good, do-good kind of thing, but there is actual substance to it.”
Margie Copenhaver, an 83-year-old resident of Eagle Manor in Helena, got her robotic pet, named Muffie, in early December.
“Muffie is good company,” Copenhaver said. “Muffie talks to me and I talk to her. She is a cutie.”
Copenhaver didn’t experience the same kind of loneliness that some seniors might while living in isolation. She spends a significant portion of her time at the manor watching television or crocheting. However, Muffie now keeps Copenhaver company while doing these activities. Copenhaver converses and laughs with Muffie as the two interact, clearly enjoying her time with the pet.
“I’ve always had dogs. I had a Pomeranian that lived to be 20 years old,” Copenhaver said. “I wouldn’t want a real dog, because my eyesight is not so good and I’d have to take it outside.”
When the robotic pets first arrived at Eagle Manor, Copenhaver would come down to the main desk every day to see them, said on-site manager Carla Adair. Once the agency gave the go-ahead for the manor to give out the pets, Copenhaver was one of the first to receive one.
“She is the prime example of what these animals do,” Adair said. “They bring joy.”
The robotic pets even pass the test with other animals. Michelle Mathot, education and outreach coordinator at Agency on Aging, said her own dog is taken aback when interacting with the robotic pets. Copenhaver said she put Muffie on the phone with a friend’s dog, and that dog kept barking back at Muffie.
Mathot said the animals are a good distraction for seniors when they feel agitated. Marks said these pets are truly designed for seniors who experience dementia or Alzheimer’s. However, Marks and Mathot said the pets also help alleviate the stress of the seniors’ caregivers, because they can help make their job easier.
“It’s about a senior sitting there alone and having something to pet,” Mathot said.
According to Marks, the tactile touch of the pets is a big part of what stimulates the brain receptors. These pets are helping combat one of the biggest challenges the agency is currently facing.
“A lot of research has come out of the pandemic. All the AOAs in the country are focused on combating isolation,” Marks said. “I think once we look back on the pandemic in retrospect, what we will see is that the non-COVID-related deaths are spiking.”
According to Marks, stress-related deaths and suicides are higher than ever due to isolation amid the pandemic.
The agency is also working on other initiatives as well, such as giving iPads to more technologically-inclined seniors and plastic discs with tactile patterns that put the brains of seniors to work by triggering mechanoreceptors.
These were funded through the CARES Act. The Agency On Aging is an organization within the Rocky Mountain Development Council.