December 4, 2002
Can robotic dogs be senior citizens' new best friends?
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. Researchers are placing robotic dogs in the homes of isolated senior citizens to determine whether the mechanical substitutes, like pets, can improve the quality of life for humans.
Alan Beck, director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond in Purdue University's School of Veterinary Medicine, and Nancy Edwards, professor of nursing, are leading the animal-assisted study that will evaluate the impact of robotic dogs on seniors' depression, physical activity, life satisfaction and morale.
"No one will argue that an older person is better off being more active, challenged or stimulated," Edwards said. "The challenge is how do we promote that, especially for those who are socially isolated. A robotic dog could be a solution."
Beck and Edwards are both faculty associates for Purdue's gerontology program and the Center for the Human-Animal Bond. Purdue has teamed with the University of Washington for the study, which is funded by the National Science Foundation.
The robotic dog, called AIBO, which means "pal" in Japanese, is about the size of a small lapdog. During the next year, people 65 years and older who live alone will be recruited to house an AIBO for six weeks. Prior to placing AIBO in the home, researchers will collect baseline data for six weeks. Participants fill out a journal to note their feelings, activity and daily living before and after AIBO. Then the research team will review the journal entries to determine if AIBO inspired any changes in the life of its owner.
"I talk to him all the time, and he responds to my voice," said Ruth Lawson, one of the study's participants. "When I'm watching TV, he'll sit in my lap until he wants down. He has a mind of his own."
The AIBOs respond to some commands bark and play. And the researchers say robotic dogs have some advantages over real, live canines, especially for senior citizens.
Often the elderly are disabled and cannot care for an animal by walking it or playing with it. Housing restrictions also may prohibit pets, and landlords sometimes charge additional fees, thus making it difficult for an older person who is on a fixed income. A robotic dog removes exercise and feeding concerns. Pets also benefit because they won't be neglected by an owner unable to care for them properly, Beck said.
Beck and Edwards stress they are not attempting to replace the role of live pets, though. Instead, a robotic companion can aid those who are shut-ins, seniors who live in housing that does not permit animals, or individuals who have limited ability to care for an animal. With a growing aging population and the aging of baby boomers, such quality of life issues need to be addressed, Edwards said.
"These robotic animals can have their own role in health care," Beck said.
Beck, who is co-author of "Between Pets and People: The Importance of Animal Companionship," also is the Dorothy N. McAllister Professor of Animal Ecology.
"Originally, it was believed that no one would relate to the robotic dog because it was metal and not furry," Beck said. "But it's amazing how quickly we have dispelled that belief."
Edwards said the potential of AIBO and other robotic animal companions in health care is just beginning to be evaluated.
"Ideally, down the road, these robotic pet companions could become a more valuable health asset. They will record their masters' blood pressure, oxygen levels or heart rhythms," Edwards said. "AIBOs may even one day have games that can help stimulate older individuals' minds."
Similar research was conducted with AIBO this summer in children ages 7 to 14. Beck teamed with Gail Melson, a professor of child development, for this study. They are currently analyzing the data.
Beck and Edwards also collaborated on a fish tank study to determine how aquariums affect the eating habits of Alzheimer's patients. The patients' appetites improved significantly, and they needed fewer nutritional supplements, resulting in health care cost savings.
Writer: Amy Patterson-Neubert, (765) 494-9723, email@example.com
Sources: Alan Beck, (765) 494-0854, firstname.lastname@example.org
Nancy Edwards, (765) 494-4015, email@example.com
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; firstname.lastname@example.org
A publication-quality photograph is available at ftp://ftp.purdue.edu/pub/uns/beck.roboticdog.jpeg.