Robot companions for the elderly just got a lot cheaper

As the entry price point plummets – I ask, are robot companions an ethical way to meet the emotional needs of vulnerable elderly patients?



My seven year old son would love Paro the robot seal. It looks immensely cute, reacts to the owner by wriggling or making delightful “seal” noises and even recharges by placing a “dummy” in its mouth. It’s been around since 2004, but at $5,000 it certainly isn’t cheap.



Paro was developed specifically to help provide therapy for patients in nursing homes, including those with dementia. However, Hasbro’s new “Joy For All” is a cat that has many of the same interactive features at less than $100!



Paro was designed to look like a seal because patients are unlikely to have any negative memories associated with them, also its incongruity in a care setting helps dispel criticism that the patients are being duped into believing that the animal is real.



It is hard to say the same for a cat.



According to Gail Mountain, professor of health service research at the University of Sheffield, who assessed Paro in a therapeutic setting – “anything that makes people feel comforted and more at ease with the world is worth it when people are in the later stages of dementia.”



But there is a world of difference between a sophisticated medical device used in a care home and a toy cat – or is there?



Hasbro’s site describes its product as giving “the gift of comfort, companionship and joy.” And this makes me uncomfortable.



My Father suffered from dementia and at the end I remember thinking he’d be better off doped up to the eyeballs with happy pills than sitting all day with his hands folded on his lap – frail and confused.



Would it have been crass of me to buy him a toy cat?



If it allows this kind of therapy to be open to more people, then great.  But part of me still worries that it may just provide a cheap and time-efficient alternative to human companionship.



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