"They may prefer a visit from a grandchild, but the child cannot be there 24/7 and the robot can," she said. "And not everyone has a grandchild or a son and daughter. So for those people it sounds like a robot could be a huge advantage."
Richard Nix, executive vice president of AgingCare.com, said technology certainly has a place in care for the elderly. Robots can help older people and their caregivers by giving reminders about medication, sensing when a person falls and calling for help, and turning off appliances when they are not in use. But when it comes to robots providing social interaction, Nix is skeptical.
"A robot's a good thing as long as it's used as an aid and not a companion," Nix said. "There's no substitute for a caring human relationship."
Some scientific data shows that playing with Paro actually does help older people. Researchers at Japan's National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, the group that developed Paro, have published a few studies that documented the positive effects of the robots.
In one study, elderly residents at a day service center played with Paro for five weeks while AIST researchers evaluated their moods using face scales and questionnaire,s and also testing their urine for stress hormones. At the end of the study, researchers reported that the residents' moods improved and their urine showed lower levels of stress hormones.
Another AIST study followed 10 elderly people who played with Paro for two hours a week for a year, and found that their feelings improved and their depression was reduced. The researchers noted that the facility's caregivers said that interaction with Paro made the residents laugh and become more active, and caused them to communicate more with one another.
These studies are small and, as scientific standards go, not terribly rigorous. Experts say much larger, more controlled trials are needed before researchers can really understand Paro's effects on people and whether the fuzzball robot can be used to meet psychological needs.
But for medical ethicists, the more important question isn't can robots help but should they. Nix said he fears the technology could serve as a temptation for overwhelmed family members and caregivers to neglect their elderly relatives.
"My concern would be that people who used to check in on mom every day instead say, I'll come every few days. Mom's with the robot, so she's OK," Nix said. "It's that unconditional love that people really can bond with, and I'm not sure a robot can show love."
Arkin said the developers who create these technologies need to ask key questions about how their products will be used in the real world.
"Who benefits from the development of this technology? Is it the young or the old?" Arkin said. "Many in our field tend to create solutions without fully understanding the issues attached to them."
Arkin said he's much more encouraged by research that investigates how robots can assist humans in providing therapy for older adults.
At Mount Macrina Manor, Benford said the staff have been so pleased with the responses they get from their two seals that they're thinking of buying a third one. She said the robot has been a tremendous aid in rehabilitating patients.
"The Paro seal helps them ... express themselves and stimulates a response ... we can't elicit that kind of response from them anymore," Benford said.