Hope Hospice Uses Animatronic Pets in Dementia Care

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Hope Hospice is using animatronic pets to help lessen the impact that pandemic-related isolation has had on its patients.

Hope Hospice is using animatronic pets to help lessen the impact that pandemic-related isolation has had on its patients. Joy for All Companion Pets™ by Ageless Innovation are robotic dog and cat toys designed specifically to comfort older adults in need of companionship; early studies specifically charted the benefits for people living with Alzheimer’s Disease and other forms of cognitive decline. The pets are battery powered and, when stroked, become alert and make lifelike noises and small movements.

With a generous donation from NorCal Minis car club, Hope Hospice was able to purchase 20 Joy For All Companion Pet cats to start. Due to hygiene protocols, especially at this time of heightened concern, the cats are gifted to the recipient, not expected to be returned for reuse.

“No one expected quarantine orders to have carried on this long,” says Nikki Tildesley, Manager of Volunteer Services at Hope Hospice. “But here we are, nearly a year into this pandemic, and our patients continue to go without the benefit of face-to-face companionship visits from our volunteers, and in many cases, even the patient’s own family. They are truly suffering.”

Patients with dementia are especially prone to experiencing side effects of long-term social isolation and loneliness. “It’s common for care providers to observe increased agitation, confusion, and repetitive behaviors in their patients who are struggling with a change in routine, like what this pandemic has caused,” says Gia Barsell, Manager of Dementia Services at Hope Hospice. “At Hope, we teach a lot about unwanted dementia-related behaviors, which can be things like agitation and generally being uncooperative for bathing and other daily activities. As the underlying disease that causes dementia progresses, verbal ability wanes and behaviors become the patient’s main form of communication. So, the patient is usually trying to communicate an unmet need in the only way he or she can.”

Pharmacological interventions may make an agitated patient easier to care for. But is that what’s best for the patient? Barsell explains, “These medicines essentially sedate the person, when it’s better long-term to figure out what is causing agitation. Sometimes, it’s a simple solution like identifying and treating a urinary tract infection or lowering ambient noise in a sitting room.”

Clinical studies conducted with Joy for All Companion Pets have shown positive results in mitigating behavior issues and potentially improving cognitive abilities in older adults. Common findings across the studies showed positive changes including reduced anxiety and agitation, and improved overall well-being, resulting in socialization with others, decreased episodes of delirium, decreased need for psychotropic medications, and reduction in caregiver burden.

One care provider participating in a study reports: “The [patient] was withdrawn, rarely interactive, and frequently mumbled incoherently. With the introduction of the pup, the patient would smile, laugh, talk to, and pick up the pet. Her son observed that, as a result, she was more responsive to him.”

Hope Hospice began distributing the cats to its dementia patients in December. The non-profit organization will seek grant funding and donations to continue the program and to get lap-dog models as well.

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Kendra Strey
Hope Hospice
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elderly man holds orange tabby animatronic cat