We’re at the tipping point of a health crisis. Not because there haven’t been incredible advances in prevention and treatment, but because the risk of so many ailments hugely increases as people age. It just does—and there are more of us aging, despite our efforts to stay young and vibrant.
When we think about business strategies and planning, we have to consider how we’re going to support this huge aging population. Larger print, slower-paced advertising campaigns and how-to videos, and older fashion models will only do so much. Because the health challenge that tends to scare people most is something that we need to face head-on: Alzheimer’s.
A society under pressure
More than six million Americans, most 65 or older, have Alzheimer’s, the most common type of dementia. It’s a progressive disease that starts with mild memory loss and can lead to serious loss of cognitive ability where one cannot hold a conversation or respond to the environment. Alzheimer’s involves areas of the brain that control thought, language, and memory.
For family members, friends, and an individual’s independence, Alzheimer’s can be devastating.
By 2060, the number of Alzheimer’s cases is predicted to rise to an estimated 14 million Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s not, however, an inevitable or normal result of aging, a common misperception.
Alzheimer’s is tied to risk factors that we can modify. If we adopt healthy lifestyle habits like managing blood pressure and diabetes, getting physical exercise, not smoking, limiting alcohol, nutritious eating, and maintaining a normal weight, we’re earning more enjoyable golden years. Essentially, living healthily can improve and protect brain health. Neuroscience research has now found that Alzheimer’s begins 20 years or more before memory loss and other symptoms develop.
So, there are a lot of factors at play here that modern society hasn’t exactly helped address; for example, we’re more sedentary and eating more takeout and processed foods than ever before.
But one important advancement is how we are revolutionizing caregiving. Simply put, with the projected numbers of Alzheimer’s patients, we’re not going to have enough care facilities to cope with the demand for services. We need to have more aging safely-at-home options. That’s happening now with emergency alert buttons, in-home nursing care, and sophisticated medication tracker apps, for example.
And then, there’s an intriguing new suggestion—turning to robotics of an unexpected kind.
New companions – robot pets
Talk to most people with a dog or cat companion, and they’ll tell you that their pet is part of the family, bringing affection, devotion, and playtime to their lives. People with pets may feel less lonely, and they have a reason to get outside (to walk their dogs or take them to the dog park).
So, one of the greatest—and saddest—struggles is people with Alzheimer’s having to give away their pets, often because of forgetting to feed or care for them. The responsibility of pet ownership can be a lot to handle, especially as memory loss eats away at a pet owner’s confidence and ability to manage daily activities like caring for a pet.
However, people with Alzheimer’s or other chronic illnesses could truly benefit from pet companionship.
The breakthrough? Robotic pets. But first, put away thoughts of robots you’ve seen in surgical assistance, on manufacturing shop floors, or in business warehouses. These robotic pets are designed to look and act like our beloved cats or dogs. They’re soft, fluffy, and pretty darn adorable. While the idea might sound like a great toy for kids, these robotic companions, such as those from Joy for All and Tombot, are provably helping fight loneliness and cognitive decline.
It turns out that there are several therapeutic benefits to robotic pets for Alzheimer’s patients, and they can also help ease the role of caregivers. In clinical studies, robot dogs and pets have been shown to help reduce stress and anxiety levels in patients living with dementia.
Certainly, behavioural problems can affect people with Alzheimer’s, increasing the cost and burden of care. They may experience fear and anxiety, hallucinations, pacing, and disorientation, and many people wake up at night with severe agitation. But just as, for many years now, real live pet therapy has been known to be emotionally beneficial, robotic pets can calm people and help them feel more grounded. Plus, they can be used in care settings without the risk of infections (transmitting zoonotic pathogens or cross-transmitting human pathogens) or injury to patients. There’s also no possibility of allergic reactions, which can be more severe in elderly people.
Robotic pets are safe and economical with no feeding, grooming, exercising, or trips to the vet required, making them an appealing companion for patients at home or in assisted-living spaces.
“Pets play an important companion role whatever your age,” Andrew Sixsmith, Director of the Science and Technology for Aging Research Institute at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia, told NBC News. “For some people with dementia, a real pet might not be feasible, so this might help.”
The data on our new best friends
Health researchers in Texas studied 61 instances of robotic pets assigned to patients in dementia care; the average patient age was 83 and 77 percent were females. About twice as many women have Alzheimer’s as men do, mainly because women live longer and age is the biggest risk factor for the disease.
Patients were randomized into control and treatment groups for the 12-week study. The fascinating results were documented in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease in 2017. The treatment group patients experiencing the touch and sensory closeness of the robot pet benefited from decreased pain and the need for less psychoactive medication. They were more socially engaged and communicative. Decreased stress and anxiety brought a better quality of life to these people living with Alzheimer’s and less stress for their caregivers.
The “hyper-realistic” Tombot puppies, for example, are designed to mimic the looks and behaviour of a real dog; they respond to how and where they’re being touched. The artistic design for the Tombot prototype was brought to life by the inspiring animatronics of Muppet creator Jim Henson’s Creature Shop.
Tombot’s Pup retails for about $500, and Ageless Innovation’s Joy for All Dogs and Cats are less realistic but more affordable at about $140.
Other companion robots on the market are pricier. PARO, a doe-eyed seal pup used in nursing homes around the globe since the early 2000s, soothes seniors with its cooing sounds and gently waving flippers. It sells for about $6,000 and holds a Guinness World Record for “most therapeutic” robot. That kind of price tag puts it out of reach for many seniors in the U.S. where millions aged 65 and older live at or near the federal poverty level.
Tom Stevens, CEO of Tombot, saw his mother experience hallucinations and violent anger, symptoms of increasing dementia. He says that psychotropic medications aren’t the only answer and can turn “seniors into zombies and greatly reduce life expectancy.”
He says, “Studies have shown that when seniors with dementia can form a robust emotional attachment to an object, traditionally a baby doll or stuffed animal, they can reduce symptoms. Tombot is scientifically designed to promote emotional attachment for seniors with dementia.”
When you scratch behind her ears, she leans in for more.
If robot technology can reduce medication use and help seniors with dementia live better lives, that’s a huge win—especially when it’s embodied in such a cute, loveable creature with big brown eyes and a tail that won’t stop wagging.