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Lonely seniors find comfort in robotic pets, combat isolation

Posted at 8:31 PM, Dec 03, 2020

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. – Loneliness and depression have intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic for many seniors living alone or in long-term care communities.

Westminster-Canterbury on Chesapeake Bay in Virginia Beach has come up with innovative and creative ways to help combat that isolation. They’re now turning to automated pets to keep seniors engaged.

Sammy, a fluffy puppy, and Buttercup, a furry cat, are two of four robotic pets at Westminster-Canterbury. Sammy has built-in sensors, so he can bark, pant and wag his tail - and he even has a heartbeat.

“Sammy responds to touch and sound,” said Julia Fretwell, Hoy Center administrator at Westminster-Canterbury. “They will know where a voice is coming from and can turn their heads to look in that direction.”

The robo-pets are meant to provide comfort to residents at the senior living community as they remain on lockdown, cut off from loved ones as the pandemic rages on.

“This is really a pandemic of loneliness and isolation for our nation’s seniors,” Fretwell said. “The pandemic has really limited our ability to touch one another, so we now are limited in how much we touch one another, and that physical contact is so important. This is a tactile experience in which you can pet the animal.”

Westminster-Canterbury is also using a plexiglass partition, known as the “Outdoor Living Room,” and a hugging wall to help break down barriers of isolation and help families feel closer to loved ones.

“It’s a great and innovative effort to combat that loneliness and to really promote that connection,” said Fretwell.

Pilot studies in several states showed animatronic pets improved the mental well-being of lonely older adults.

Fretwell said the robotic pets have helped their senior residents in the assisted living and Hoy nursing center, who, since March, have been dealing with depression, anxiety and cognitive decline due to fewer interactions with families.

“One family in particular had said they really saw the joy on their mom’s face,” she said. “They said it was a smile that they hadn’t seen in a long time.”

As the most vulnerable population waits for a vaccine, Fretwell said they’re thankful for the robotic pet’s companionship and remain hopeful to be able to once again embrace loved ones.

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