CARES, The University of Auckland
Source: CARES, The University of Auckland

Paro is a fluffy robot that looks like a baby harp seal. Made in Japan, this pet-type robot responds to touch, position, light, and voice to move its flippers and tail, lift its head, blink its beautiful eyes, and make cute baby seal noises. It has been used as a companion for people with dementia, who can’t keep a real pet, and can be found in many elderly care facilities worldwide. While some observational studies have shown benefits, few randomised trials have been performed. Previous trials suggest that Paro can reduce agitation and depression in dementia patients (Jøranson et al., 2015), and a previous trial by my colleagues and I found that Paro reduced loneliness in rest-home residents (Robinson, et al., 2013).

In a new study, we showed that a companion robot may benefit people with dementia who are living in the community. In this randomized controlled trial, people with dementia interacting with the robot at daycare smiled more and talked more than those with dementia doing other daycare activities.

The new study was conducted in Auckland, New Zealand. It involved 30 dyads, consisting of a person with dementia living at home and a family member caring for them. They were randomized to either have a Paro with them at home and at 1-hour daycare sessions, or to not have a Paro at all. After six weeks, Paro was removed and outcomes were assessed at both 6 weeks and 12 weeks.

Participants interacting with Paro were observed to smile more and to talk more to staff during daycare sessions than participants in the control group. Depression scores decreased in both groups over the first 6 weeks but increased again after Paro was taken away in the Paro group. There were no differences in stress hormones or dementia symptoms between the groups.

Most caregivers reported positive effects of having the robot at home, including reduced anxiety and enhanced mood in people with dementia. The robot gave some people a sense of purpose and something to love and cuddle. Many people with dementia sang and talked to Paro, and enjoyed showing Paro to family and visitors. Many caregivers felt the need to supervise interactions. Two people with dementia were not interested in Paro, and/or made negative comments. The response to Paro varied between individuals, and people who had better cognitive function responded better to Paro than those who were more impaired.

These new findings are important because dementia affects around 45 million people worldwide, a number that is expected to triple by 2050. Most people with dementia are cared for at home, which is both better for their quality of life and less costly for society than living in assisted facilities. It is important to find ways to help people manage the emotional and behavioral symptoms of dementia so they can delay or prevent a move to institutional care. Various kinds of robots are being developed to help people with dementia, but more trials are needed to assess whether or not the robots are helpful.  It is also important to find out who is most likely to benefit from these new technologies.

References

Jøranson, N., Pedersen. I., Rokstad, A., & Ihlebæk, C. (2015). Effects on symptoms of agitation and depression in persons with dementia participating in robot-assisted activity: A cluster-randomized controlled trial. Journal of the American Medical Directors Association, 16, 867- 873.

Liang A., Piroth, I., Robinson, H., MacDonald, B., Fisher, M., Nater, U.M., …Broadbent, E. (2017). A pilot randomised trial of a companion robot for people with dementia living in the community. Journal of the American Medical Directors Association. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jamda.2017.05.019

Robinson, H., MacDonald, B.A., Kerse, N., & Broadbent, E. (2013). The psychosocial effects of a companion robot: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of the American Medical Directors Association, 14, 661-7. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jamda.2013.02.007

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