This invention for patients living with dementia is as cute as it is potentially therapeutic. Named Paro this robotic baby harp seal was designed by Dr. Takamori Shibata at the Japanese National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science And Technology. It is a fully interactive robotic toy, capable of recognizing words and responding to sound and light(1).
It also makes baby seal noises and nuzzles, simulating affection for the person interacting with it.
Therapy For Dementia Patients
Engaging with comfort items can help reduce anxiety individuals with dementia, according to Wendy Moyle, a researcher at the Griffith Health Institute in Australia.
In a recent study, Moyle split 18 dementia patients into two groups – a reading group, and a group that interacted with Paro. At the end of the study, the Paro group had significantly higher quality of life scores than the patients in the reading group(2).
Why A Baby Seal?
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When researchers were designing the Paro prototype, concerns were raised about individuals who might have had negative experiences with cats or dogs reacting with fear to a robot toy dog or cat. But baby seals, in addition to being adorable, are much less likely to be sources of anxiety for dementia patients.
Additionally, Paro was designed to be the perfect size and shape for holding in your lap – just like a small pet.
Cost Is A Barrier
While the benefits of the Paro toy have been solidly proven, there is a downside – each Paro model costs about five thousand dollars, and if it ever needs repairs, it has to be shipped back to a special studio in Japan for the repairs to be made.
This makes the toy currently not particularly accessible for many therapeutic programs, but for wealthier patients, it may be money well spent – anything that improves the quality of life of dementia patients can also save money in terms of medication and other forms of medical care, and allow them more independence as well.
Paro is the focus of Wendy Moyle’s next project. Funded by a large grant from the National Health and Medical Research Council, the new study is going to be much larger than the initial one, involve 380 dementia patients and three different care options.
Several aged care facilities in Australia are taking part, and the study is seeking to recruit more care facilities to round out their numbers(3).
While Paro may improve the quality of life of dementia patients, the use of robots in dementia care is controversial to say the least. Since the 1990s, ethical debates about the use of robots to care with dementia patients have been present in medical and philosophical literature.
Some are concerned that using robots to care for dementia patients will remove an element of human care that dementia patients need.
Paro provides a balance between the knowledge that assistive technology like robots can improve the quality of life of people with dementia, and the need of dementia patients for human interaction – they’re designed primarily as comfort items, not as a substitute for face-to-face time spent with other people.
“Robots, particularly companion robots, can also help to fill those inevitable times when people with dementia are left alone when care staff or family are occupied with another resident or task,” writes Moyle.
“This is not replacing the staff member or family, but rather providing comfort when they are absent. Robots might provide stimulation and comfort for a person with dementia who would otherwise have been alone, anxious and bored.”