Robotic pets are becoming more and more popular with people who have dementia, and it’s easy to see why these realistic looking animals are gaining such wide appeal. But could a robot ever become a man’s best friend?
Imagine owning a dog that looks and feels like the real thing, but never needs to be walked, fed or taken to see a vet. How about having a cat that purrs contentedly whilst sitting on your lap but never scratches, bites or requires a litter tray. Sounds tempting? Life-like robotic pets certainly seem to offer all the benefits of pet ownership, without any of the considerable responsibilities – and for people with dementia they can offer even more.
An increasing amount of evidence shows that these sensory toys not only provide comfort, cuddles and happiness to a person living with dementia, they are also a valuable therapeutic tool; increasing quality of life by offering a much needed sense of purpose, and making it possible for someone who may otherwise be totally dependent on others, to care for ‘someone’ else. This sense of empowerment can be truly invigorating.
But can companion pets be considered demeaning? Is it ever okay to give an adult an animal shaped toy to play with? Some family carers do admit to having concerns. ‘The hardest bit for me was introducing the cat to Mum. I never want to patronise her and was worried about what she might think,’ Alice admitted. But she needn’t have worried, adding later that the experience had been a ‘great success.’
In fact, our research suggests that most people who decide a companion pet is ‘worth a try’ find themselves pleasantly surprised by their benefits. ‘My husband always owned dogs, now he has two pretend puppies, he wraps them up in a blanket on the sofa before bed and talks gently to them,’ says Ann. ‘It’s a little bit sad, but mostly it’s wonderful to see him happy.’
Others say their pets have proved great conversation starters, provoking many happy memories of previous pets and are a particularly effective way to calm and soothe a loved one who is feeling upset or agitated.
Whilst nobody suggests a sensory toy – however life-like – could ever replace a real pet, one thing is sure; they are bringing pleasure to thousands of people with dementia, and quite a few others too.
As one family carer puts it: ‘My mind is made up, I’m going to buy one, and if Mum doesn’t like it I’ll adopt it myself.’