For most pet owners, the lovable creatures become another member of the family, serving as constant companions.
But aging adults who can no longer care for real pets may feel deprived of the emotional benefits of interacting with an animal friend. In 2020, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found that one-fourth of adults age 65 and older are deemed socially isolated, which can take a toll on their mental and physical health.
Ted Fischer, who stumbled into healthcare after working at toy company Hasbro, said older adults want more “play” in their lives amid the epidemic of loneliness exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. He’s now the co-founder and CEO of Ageless Innovation, which seeks to help address that need.
After gathering input from older adults in nursing homes, assisted-living facilities and independent-living communities, Fischer’s team determined robotic pets could prove meaningful in their lives. In 2015, the company launched its first robotic pet, a lifelike interactive cat designed for older adults. A year later, it created an animatronic dog.
“We look at the world of issues that older adults are facing, and we say, ‘How can we impact these adults in a more fun, joyful and playful way?’ ” Fischer said.
Realism is key, he added. The pets react to petting and hugging, and bark or meow in response to conversations. Owners can even feel the cats vibrate while purring, and both types of animals have a simulated heartbeat.
In evaluating emotional responses to robotic pets, UnitedHealthcare and AARP found that the bonds formed reduce loneliness and improve quality of life for older adults. According to Ageless Innovation, some Medicare Advantage and Medicaid plans have opted to include the mechanical pets in coverage for older adults with depression or Alzheimer’s disease.