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Comfort pets provide companionship to adults experiencing isolation, memory loss

By Stephen Anable, Communications Specialist

Bernadette Cary, 87, is relaxing on her bed in her room at the Sutton Home for Women in Peabody, cuddling a new stuffed dog. It looks like a typical plush toy: blond, roughly a foot high, with an expression that suggests affection or anticipation. Then, abruptly, the dog comes “alive.” It opens its mouth to reveal a pink tongue and pants, wiggles, and moans in response to being patted. The dog is an electronic comfort pet, a highly interactive robot that turns toward the sound of a human voice and even emits a gentle heartbeat.

The pet, manufactured by Joy for All, was presented to Bernadette through Elder Services’ Home Care program. Taking the form of a dog or a cat, comfort pets simulate the movements, sounds, and reactions of an actual animal. These products are highly effective in soothing those with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias, like Bernadette. The pets help keep them calm and engaged.

Susan Otolo, of Revere, says her mother, Bernadette, is extremely involved with the dog she calls “Puppy.” She says the family has raised and loved many dogs over the years and thought a robotic pet might be a tough sell. But Bernadette bonded instantly with the dog.

“I was struck by the immediate connection between Bernadette and the pet,” says Dawn Karolides, Bernadette’s care manager through Home Care. “Dementia steals so much from people, but the ability to experience love and joy is always there, waiting for something to bring it out.”

These pets have also proved effective for people experiencing loneliness, isolation, and anxiety, and a variety of other behavioral and health conditions.

Susan says Bernadette knows it’s a robot but spends all day “holding, cuddling, and talking to Puppy.” She takes it along for rides in the family car and sleeps with it at night.

Since getting the dog, Susan observes that Bernadette has brightened significantly and has more energy.

The dog is low maintenance and can be switched off for quiet times when Bernadette’s energy flags. Other residents consider the dog a welcome addition to their lives and enjoy greeting it as well.

Electronic comfort pets are an option for eligible consumers receiving our Home Care services. The Massachusetts’ Executive Office of Elder Affairs introduced the comfort pet program in January of this year, in part to address older adults’ loneliness and isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic. To date, our Home Care program has distributed approximately 30 pets and plans to expand the program

“The comfort pet program is an important addition to the services we offer Home Care consumers,” says Home Care Director Alicia Ritter. “The pets can interact with seniors when homemakers and family members are busy. They provide stimulation for consumers and respite time for caregivers. Seeing them in action is highly impressive.”

While the comfort pets are new to the Home Care program, Elder Services’ Family Caregiver Support Program have used them for some time. Individuals or their family members should ask their care manager if they are interested in learning more about comfort pets.

Learn more by calling 800-892-0890 or info@esmv.org