In Isolating Times, Can Robo-Pets Provide Comfort?

As seniors find themselves cut off from loved ones during the pandemic, some are turning to automated animals for company.

One already does — HealthPartners, in the Midwest — and “we are in conversations with many other Medicare Advantage plans,” Ted Fischer, chief executive of Ageless Innovation, said in an email. The company is also eyeing certain Medicaid programs.

The idea of a robot, however fuzzy, as an antidote to loneliness produces both enthusiasm and revulsion. “These animals are helping people,” said Ms. Preve, a fan.

But Sherry Turkle, a psychologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has studied people and technology for 20 years, objected. “The promise is that it becomes a companion and you have a relationship with it,” she said of a robotic animal. “As though there’s mutuality. There’s not mutuality. It’s a bunch of bits and bytes.”

Sister Imelda Maurer, who, as a member of the Sisters of Divine Providence of San Antonio, has long been involved with elder care, dislikes the notion of deceiving people who have dementia and may think robots are actual pets. “There’s an element of ethical dishonesty about it,” she said.

Both she and Dr. Turkle pointed out that the enthusiasm for robots spotlighted the many failings in the way our society cares for older people, whether in understaffed facilities or isolated at home.

Moreover, how seniors will react is unpredictable. Emily J. White, a social work consultant in Sunnyvale, Calif., watched in amazement as her 96-year-old mother, who had dementia and depression and had largely stopped eating, warmed up to a Joy for All cat — and promptly asked for a piece of cake.

But Timothy Livengood, a planetary scientist in Columbia, Md., said his 80-year-old mother, who has dementia and lives in a facility, largely ignored a robotic cat. “She never really attached to it,” he said. “It didn’t have a personality.”

Via NYTimes

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