More than 4,000 additional robotic pets to be given to seniors in New York to combat loneliness

The robotic pets will be distributed by the New York State Office For Aging.

June 15, 2024, 4:59 AM

Helen Macura has always wanted a dog, but the Prohibition-era home she has lived in since 1945 isn't safe for a potential pet. Her childhood dream of owning a dog finally came true a couple years ago, when Helen was in her late 90s.

Today, at 101 years old, Helen says she is grateful for her robotic dog that she has affectionately named "Friendly."

Friendly is battery-powered and resembles a golden retriever puppy. He is one of the 31,500 robotic pets already given away by the New York State Office For Aging (NYSOFA). The pup barks, turns his head and raises his paw. Importantly, he does not run out the door onto her busy street.

On June 3, NYSOFA announced that it will give away 4,725 additional robotic pets to seniors in ongoing efforts to combat senior loneliness. Greg Olsen, the acting director of NYSOFA, said that loneliness has grave health consequences for seniors and it "can literally kill you." Robotic pets are one tool to help alleviate loneliness.

Critics may argue robotic pets are "botsourcing" -- or outsourcing -- human connection to robots, but Olsen said robotic pets can be a way to connect with other humans by being a common topic of conversation.

More than 4,000 robotic pets will be be distributed among seniors by the New York State Office For Aging. Pictured: Judy Shapiro with her robotic cat.
New York State Office For Aging

Ted Fischer originally envisioned robotic pets for seniors while working at a children's toy company. The product was intended for school-aged children but "about 20% of the reviews were not mom buying it for their four-to-eight-year-old daughter, but buying it for an aging loved one," Fischer said.

Fischer's convictions about the benefit of robotic pets for seniors led him to launch Ageless Innovation, a company that creates products for people of all ages to play.

Olsen remembers first seeing a robotic pet his daughter bought online in 2018. He immediately thought it would be a fantastic product for "some of our isolated and lonely older adults that are already on our caseload." Olsen found Fischer online, and a partnership was formed.

Since 2018, NYSOFA has purchased subsidized robotic pets for seniors from Ageless Innovation using state general funds. Pets include not only robotic cats and dogs, but also birds -- affectionately termed "walker squakers." The pets have been popular, and certain counties have even had to create waiting lists for seniors who want the pets.

"I recommend that every home should have one," said Macura, referencing her robot dog. Some nights when she cannot sleep, she sits in the living room and talks to Friendly.

"I'm talking to somebody. I do have companionship. There's somebody here listening to me," she said. "He's warm and he's comfort."

Dr. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University, has researched the health effects of loneliness for the last 25 years. Her research was cited in Surgeon General Vivek Murthy's 2023 declaration of an "epidemic of loneliness and isolation."

"The mortality impact of being socially disconnected is similar to that caused by smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day," the advisory states, a reference to Holt-Lunstad's work.

She explained, "When we are alone or not part of a group, it takes more effort to either be vigilant to threats in our environment or to just meet the everyday demands of life."

Holt-Lunstad continued that the stresses of being socially disconnected "can increase activation in our brain." Over time, increased activation in the brain can signal the bone marrow to create an inflammatory response. Chronic systemic inflammation has been linked to a host of diseases, said Holt-Lunstad.

The surgeon general's advisory enumerates these outcomes, stating that loneliness "is associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, stroke, depression, anxiety, and premature death."

Holt-Lunstad said that loneliness is a biological motive, like hunger and thirst. Loneliness "signals some kind of change that needs to be made," she said.

Stock photo
Edwin Tan /Getty Images

The solution to loneliness is social connection. The connection must be consistent and, "in a way, it's very parallel to physical activity. One time is not going to be enough," said Holt-Lunstad.

Olsen and Fischer understand that a robotic pet might not provide high-quality social connection for every senior. Olsen said these pets are only one tool that NYSOFA is using.

But for certain seniors, robotic pets can make difficult transitions easier by centering the experience around the pet. "It sort of becomes about the pet as opposed to the thing" that is scary, said Fischer.

Macura hopes more seniors have access to robotic pets. "Especially the older senior citizens that are living alone. They should have companionship, good companionship," she said.

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