Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Senior centers try robotic cats to soothe agitated elders

Stanley Ellis, one of the residents at Abramson Center for Jewish Life, interacts with a robotic cat. It purrs and meows when stroked.
Stanley Ellis, one of the residents at Abramson Center for Jewish Life, interacts with a robotic cat. It purrs and meows when stroked.Read moreMichael Bryant

Stanley Ellis, who has dementia, was humming genially even before Daphne Da Silva gave him the gray-and-white robotic cat.  He was conducting with his right hand, then clapping to the rhythm of a song only he could hear.

"Look who I brought  to see you," Da Silva said. She is a recreation coordinator at the Abramson Center for Jewish Life in North Wales, where Ellis lives.

His face brightened.  He laughed.  "I love this," Ellis said, and it was obvious that he did.  "This is cute."

The cat, christened Mittens, could move its ears and eyes.  It could lift its paw for washing and roll on its belly.  Its purr, complete with vibration, was more convincing than its meow, but both were good enough to conjure memories of real pets, of real caregiving.

"Oh, I love this dog," Ellis said as he stroked the long fake fur.

"It's a cat," Da Silva corrected.

Ellis, 92,  sang to the toy awhile, his eyes riveted to its face.  "What a good little pooch you are," he said.

No matter. Ellis was happy and engaged.  The cat — a rare toy designed specifically for the senior market — had done its job.

Abramson got its first robotic cat in December, when Marc Lipsitt brought an orange tabby for his significant other, Mary Rosenberger,  59, who has advanced, early-onset dementia.  She didn't care much for the cat, but lots of other residents did. Lipsitt gave "Timmy" to the center and a trend was born.  Thanks to donations and purchases of its own, Abramson has 14 of the $100 toys.  Hardly a day goes by, Lipsitt said, when he doesn't see a cat in a resident's lap.

"The reaction from residents has been absolutely tremendous," said Tori Crumbie, Abramson's director of recreation.  "The residents have fallen in love almost instantly."

Toy cats, real feelings

Real dogs often visit Abramson, but cats are ill-suited for therapy visits.  The center has a real pet bunny named Buttons and lots of birds.  The residents love the real animals, but some also enjoy holding dolls. The robotic cats fill a similar need for closeness and nurturing.  Crumbie said they often calm residents who become agitated in the afternoon or evening.

Ilene Fridling, an Abramson social worker, said a visit with a robotic  cat "changed the whole tenor of the conversation" with one angry resident.  "She clearly understood it was not real, but her interaction with it was joyful."  One resident wanted a robotic cat in her room for "comfort" while she was dying.

Kendal, a Chester County-based nonprofit that operates senior living facilities in seven states and Washington, discovered the robotic cats about three months ago.  Nine of its 13 centers already have some.  There are five at Barclay Friends in West Chester, where Elsabet Haile is director of recreation.

A cat named Goldie has helped keep a resident who was prone to falls calmer and in her chair.  She frets about whether the cat has had enough to eat. Another resident, Haile said, thinks the meowing cat is speaking Yiddish to her.  A cat filled a void for a woman who had recently lost her husband.

"It's been a godsend for many of our residents," she said.

The toys can be a helpful distraction. When someone feels an urgent need to catch an imaginary train just before supper, a staff member can offer the anxious resident a cat and ask, "Can you hold my cat for me?"

Brookdale Senior Living, the nation's largest senior housing provider, now has the cats in about 125 of its 550 dementia units, said Juliet Holt Klinger, Brookdale's senior director of dementia care.  She was skeptical when she heard about the cats.  "At Brookdale, we really don't embrace anything fake," she said, while conceding that the centers use dolls because real infants are in short supply.  Maintaining resident dignity is a high priority.

But the cats were an instant hit.  "I was won over after having them out in our communities," she said.  The cats are both playful and soothing.

Toys meant for seniors

Hasbro introduced the Joy for All Companion Pets line in November 2015. Three types of cats came first.  A puppy was added last fall. (Officials at both Abramson and Kendal prefer the cats.  Holt Klinger, a dog person, prefers the puppy.)   From the beginning, the robotic animals were meant to appeal to seniors.

The roots of that idea go back 10 years to the introduction of FurReal Friends, a group of animatronic toys — Pax, My Poopin' Pup is one of them — meant for 4- to 8-year-old girls, said Ted Fischer, Hasbro's vice president of business development. The company noticed that 10 percent to 15 percent of its reviews were written by moms who had purchased a toy for an aging loved one.

Fischer joined the company about two years ago, tasked with finding new markets for Hasbro's products.  As the company dug into the senior sector, it  found "an overwhelming need for interactive companionship."

Hasbro tested products in senior communities near its Rhode Island headquarters, then did national research.  Employees picked three cat color schemes based on what seniors said they liked.  As expected, orange tabbies have proven most popular.   The cats are endowed with 30 sensors that help them interact, but a little randomly.  "What we heard over and over is that cats never do what you want them to do when you want them to,"  Fischer said.

Still, these cats have the advantage of not needing a litter box.  They won't steal your dinner or spit up a hairball on the couch.  "We didn't include the look of disdain," Fischer added.  They do shed a little, but a few sessions with a brush — included in the delivery box — will take care of that problem, he said.  Hasbro has trademarked their VibraPurr function.  "The reaction to that has been amazing," he said.

He declined to share sales figures.  "We're really thrilled by the response we got in 2016," he said.

Quantifying joy

So far, there's not much science about whether robotic toys can have a lasting effect on mood or behavior. Fischer thinks they clearly fill a need.  He's been to many conferences on geriatrics.  Often, he said, the dominant theme is death and dying.  "There's not enough people thinking about fun and joy and happiness," he said.

Ina Schechter, 91, another Abramson resident, also likes the cats, even if she always was a dog person.  "Hello. Hello, sweetheart," she cooed after Gillespie handed her a blond cat named Pearl, or maybe, Gillespie joked, Purrl.

Her daughter, Karen Schloss of Elkins Park, has become a fan of the cats.  The first time she saw her mother with one, "I was shocked out of my head because she was talking to it."  But now she appreciates the way it grabs her mother's attention.   "She's much more lively when she engages with something,"  she said.  "That's why this is so important."

Eight ways to calm agitated people with dementia

Agitation, particularly in the late afternoon and evening, is a common problem in people with dementia.  It is often called sundowning and may include increased confusion. The staff at Abramson Center has found the robotic cats helpful in calming residents, but Tori Crumbie, director of recreation, and Marcy Shoemaker, a psychologist who is the center's marketing director, said others may respond to different techniques, such as:

  1. Get a twiddlemuff.  This is a knitted muff, or tube for the hands, for people with fidgety fingers.  They're meant for tactile stimulation.  Many use different kinds of yarn.  There may be buttons, ribbons, and pom-poms on the outside and other small objects to touch on the inside.

  1. Crumbie also likes small toys such as Koosh and stress balls, a Rubik's Cube, or Tangles, curving tubes that can be twisted into many shapes.

     Stacey Burling / Staff Photographer
    Tori Crumbie, director of recreation, for Abramson Center for Jewish Life, shows how to use a Tangle.

  2. Abramson started a walking club that gets a group at high risk for afternoon sundowning moving before their symptoms typically start.  Crumbie said it's always wise to offer drinks and snacks after exercise because agitation may stem from "unmet needs" that residents can no longer describe for themselves.

  3. Bring out the family photo albums.  Let people with dementia tell family stories.

  4. Gentle touch is calming for many people. Try a hand massage.

  5. Play favorite songs.

  6. Many people with dementia enjoy simple chores.  Let them fold laundry or take things in and out of boxes.

  7. Offer coloring books.