Can a battery-operated cat help combat dementia?

     Mark Lipsitt bought a robotic cat for his partner Mary, a nursing home resident who has dementia, to bring her comfort. (Kim Paynter/WHYY)

    Mark Lipsitt bought a robotic cat for his partner Mary, a nursing home resident who has dementia, to bring her comfort. (Kim Paynter/WHYY)

    Many nursing homes try to replicate the feeling of home for their residents – but let’s face it, no matter how fancy the place is, it never quite feels like home, right? Is it the odd quiet, the long hallways, the medical vibe? Some places try to create a more cheerful environment with pets – or… well, kind of pets?


    Mark Lipsitt goes to visit his partner Mary in a nursing home outside of Philadelphia every day. It’s a forty minute drive. And, to lighten her mood, he brings along a cat named Timmy. He gently places the cat on Mary’s lap and encourages her to admire the meowing orange and white ball of fur. 

    Mary has dementia and her ability to communicate is limited to occassionaly answering yes or no questions. Other times, like this visit, she’s closed to the world. Sitting in a wheelchair while a game show flashes on the TV next to her, Mary appears agitated and entirely uninterested in the cat. Four years ago, when she was in her mid-50s, Mary started showing signs of a specific type of Alzheimer’s disease. 

    “Her memory wasn’t really impacted at all, but it impacted her speech and her visual processing. It was hard for her to get in and out of a chair because the chair looked flat. It didn’t have any dimension to it. It was very difficult, it was very frustrating,” Lipsitt said.

    Lipsitt cared for her at home as long as he could. Then about a year ago, she came to live here at the Abramson Center for Jewish Life. Lipsitt hopes Timmy the cat reminds Mary of the beloved pets she once cared for. But unlike her real pets from the past, Timmy is a robot. So are the three “cats” owned by the nursing home where Mary lives.

    On a trip to visit residents, social worker Ilene Fridling carries along a gray and white faux cat named Mittens. First, Fridling opens a velcro tab on the cat’s stomach and switched the robot on. Then she hands Mittens the “cat” to Lois, a resident in an orange shirt and glasses who’s sitting in a wheelchair. Lois is a big fan of cats, even this fake one who’s sporting a red and green bow on his neck.

    “I’m 81 now and first time ever without an animal. It’s very empty. I mean my animals, always slept in the same bed as my husband and I and it’s just very lonely without an animal,” Lois said. 

    In the rec room where Lois held the robotic cat, there was also a cage of tiny birds and another with a very furry bunny. While those living breathing animals require food, water and upkeep, Mittens only needs batteries. And unlike therapy dogs that stop by for a short visit, the fake cats can work as many hours as needed, even at night. The robotic cat’s thick pelt of fake fur is pleasant to pet and its blinking eyes really do seem lifelike. But if you run your hand down the cat’s back, its hard spine gives it away – as does the cat’s inability to jump off your lap and stroll away. Lois said the robot doesn’t completely fill the role of a real cat she once had. 

    “When my cat had kittens and she would get out of her box every once in awhile to stroll around, my dog would jump into the box, lay down, and the kittens would snuggle with the dog. They were always friends.” Lois looked down at the fake cat on her lap with a smile. “She’s beautiful. Oh, the vibration from her, it feels so good. I love animals,” Lois said.

    That soothing vibration is no coincidence, it’s called ‘VibraPurr’ and it was created to mimic the feeling of a real cat. 

    Ted Fischer is the Vice President of Business Development at Hasbro, the toy company. For him, these fake felines are better than real cats: he’s actually allergic to them. Fischer said the company’s engineers designed the cats based on how real cats behave. 

    “It will roll over at some point, there’s 32 different sounds in the cat of purring and meowing and it will preen, so cleaning itself, and really expressive eyes,” Fischer said. 

    So are there health benefits to gazing into those expressive eyes? Research with senior citizens in New Zealand found that interactions with a robotic seal had similar benefits for older adults, compared to time with a real animal. Another study found robotic dogs reduced feelings of loneliness among seniors at a long-term care facility. 

    Back at the nursing home, just about every resident wanted a look at the cat that was cradled in social worker Ilene Fridling’s arms. She said when she has Mittens with her, residents engage with her more freely.

    “They tease me about having my cat. But they definitely stop and chat and talk and want to hold the cat. So yes, definitely makes people friendlier and more open,” Fridling said. 

    Within the walls of a nursing home, where residents can struggle to feel at home, moments of joy and laughter can be significant. Fridling said the fake cats have helped some residents cope with specific reoccurring challenges, like the woman with dementia whose growing agitation each evening has diminished now that she has a robotic cat to hold. 

    The $99 cats — which come in three colors — aren’t the only robotic animals out there. Hasbro sells a dog that barks back if you talk to it. And remember that seal researchers studied interacting with senior citizens? The therapeutic robot named Paro is designed in the shape of a small white seal and used to calm people with dementia. Though maybe not everyone would find the bleating sound relaxing. The seal is covered in different sensors: a light sensor perceives darkness, an audio sensor recognizes the direction of voice and words. 

    Humans have been talking to robots for a long time and sometimes they even change our behavior. Self-described “Mistress of Machines” Kate Darling studies human-robot interaction at MIT.

    “There was a chatbot back in the ’60s that was named Eliza. All it did was ask you questions when you said something. So you would say, ‘I hate my mother.’ And it would say, ‘Why do you hate your mother?’ And people would completely open up to it and tell it all sorts of things, not realizing that this transcript was being recorded,” Darling said. 

    The ease with which humans connect with machines is no surprise to Darling. She paid a lot of attention to a child-sized robot named hitchBOT that journeyed down the East Coast from Massachusetts. HitchBOT didn’t make it far, though. It was found decapitated in Philadelphia in 2015. 

    “There was such a massive outpouring of sympathy and support from people who were sad, even arguably beyond even what we’d normally see for a human hitchhiker, let alone just somebody’s property that was vandalized in this case. So it really kind of illustrates the way that we will treat robots like living things and have compassion for them even though we know that they’re just machines,” Darling said.

    That point — that robots are just machines — may not be clear to some nursing home residents with dementia. And Darling admitted that in theory “there is something a little bit creepy and unethical about giving people the sense of nurturing something that’s not alive.” 

    But she said from a practical perspective, you also have to look at the alternatives. If the choice is whether to give a patient more medication or to bring in a robotic cat to sit on her lap, Darling said she’d support using the robot. 


    Nursing Home resident Lois says she loves animals and enjoys spending time with the robotic animals, even though they don’t completely fill the role of the real life pets she once owned. (Kim Paynter/WHYY)

    Mark Lipsitt, who bought one of the robotic cats for his partner Mary, isn’t worried whether she understands that distinction. 

    “The opportunity to have a pet, whether it’s robotic or real, really I don’t think makes a big difference. They feel the warmth, the security that they feel in petting it. So I think it’s very comforting,” Lipsitt said.

    Social workers at the nursing home in suburban Philadelphia agree. They’re getting more cats and plan to start using them during end of life care. 

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