A $6,000 Seal Becomes Robotic Companion for Older Adults

PHOTO: Paro, robotic baby seal, is designed to give comfort and companionship to older adults.

Residents at Mount Macrina Manor, a long-term care facility in Uniontown, Pa., have many furry companions to keep them company: dogs, cats, bunnies, birds, and a couple of robotic white baby seals. Residents and staff call one of the seals Sarah, but to its manufacturers and researchers, it's known as Paro.

Patti Benford, Mount Macrina's administrator, said therapists caring for patients with dementia use Paro to help them work through problems with communication and social interaction. She said most residents react to the robot the same way they respond to therapy with live animals. But the seals don't make a mess, which is a big win for the staff, Benford said.

"Some of these patients had no facial expressions, offered no verbal communication before their therapy," Benford said. "But with Paro, some of them came back out of that shell, and their eyes would light up. It's wonderful."

Paro is a soft, fuzzy robot, built to look and sound like a baby seal. It's also a $6,000 machine, classified by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as a Class II medical device.

Stroke its fur, and Paro squirms delightedly at the loving touch. Hit or punish it, and it will learn not to repeat what it did to cause displeasure. With the help of audio sensors, Paro can even learn its name and respond to greetings.

"It has really big dark eyes and big long eyelashes, so it really is endearing," Benford said. "The residents think it's something real, something that's alive."

That feeling makes elder care experts and medical ethicists a little uneasy. Social robots like Paro create a number of ethical quandaries, particularly when it comes to older people who may be physically and mentally impaired. For instance, is it ethical to let older people believe that a robot is alive?

"We get concerned about whether these devices promote detachment from reality," said Ron Arkin, regent's professor and director of the mobile robot laboratory at the Georgia Institute of Technology. "Also, are we abrogating our responsibilities to our fellow human beings by suddenly saying, the robot can take care of you?"

Other elder care experts see Paro and his robotic brethren as useful tools in combating debilitating mental health woes in older adults. Nearly 2 million U.S. adults age 65 and older suffer from some form of depression, according to Mental Health America, a nonprofit organization dedicated to raising mental health awareness. Many studies have shown that interaction goes a long way in helping older adults cope with feelings of anxiety, isolation and agitation that can come as they face declining health, dwindling circles of friends, and increased financial or personal troubles.

As a social robot, Paro is designed to help people with precisely those problems. On its website, Paro Robots U.S. Inc., the device's manufacturer, says the baby seal can improve the psychological well-being in patients in hospitals and extended care facilities.

Rosamond Rhodes, director of bioethics education at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, said she doesn't see anything wrong with using a robot like Paro to help older people lessen their anxiety or depression. Of course, the robot won't replace a relationship with a grandchild, Rhodes said, but it still can be a useful tool in alleviating mental anguish.

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