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Oswego County, New York's Office for the Aging has distributed 30 animatronic pets to senior citizens to provide companionship amid a year of social isolation.
Since the first months of the coronavirus pandemic, 30 senior citizens in Oswego County, New York, have welcomed new pets into their homes. The animals, placed via a program through the county’s Office for the Aging, purr and bark, wag their tails and roll over for tummy rubs, but they don’t require water, food or housebreaking—though they will occasionally need fresh batteries.
The pets are animatronic—battery-operated robotic animals that interact realistically with their caregivers. The cats and dogs, manufactured by Joy For All Pets, are designed specifically for older adults who could benefit from a pet’s companionship but aren’t able to care for a live animal on their own.
“They provide socialization,” said Sara Sunday, aging services administrator for the Oswego County Office for the Aging. “It’s a pet that interacts with them that does not need to be fed, or watered, or brought outside to use the bathroom. When you see them, they just bring a smile to your face, the same way that pets do.”
The county agency received an initial batch of eight pets from the New York State Office for the Aging, which had first debuted the artificial animals several years ago in a pilot project in a handful of counties. Last April, they expanded that program statewide, offering up to 1,100 of the pets to seniors deemed “most at risk of social isolation” during the coronavirus pandemic.
“We are utilizing innovative ways to combat the public health emergency of social isolation and loneliness, and the robotic pet project has extensive evidence showing the overwhelming value to the older population,” Greg Olsen, the state agency’s acting director, said in a statement at the time. “Expanding the access to these pets will help thousands of older New Yorkers by offering companionship.”
To deploy those first eight animatronic animals, Sunday had county case managers identify clients who seemed like they would benefit from the companionship. Those pets were well received, so when the county received federal coronavirus funding, Sunday used some of the money to purchase more.
The county took applications for that second group of cats and dogs and selected recipients using a screening process that included a questionnaire designed to gauge loneliness. Applicants who qualify—by meeting at least two criteria on the survey—can choose between the dog or the cat (preference, so far, is about even), and then schedule a time to receive their pet directly from a county employee.
Some of the recipients live alone in their homes, Sunday said, but a number of them also reside in senior living communities, where loneliness began to set in when the pandemic curtailed normal routines of visits with neighbors, group meals and social activities.
“We had people who lived alone, and some people who were isolated in terms of where they lived, so not only were they not talking to people, they weren’t getting out,” she said. “But we had people in community settings as well. Social isolation is not just someone in their own home far away from everyone else. There’s no rhyme or reason to who feels isolated or is lonely. It’s everywhere.”
The pets were a game-changer for some recipients, who said during a six-month follow-up survey that having an animal—even a robotic one—stirred the same joy as the real dogs or cats they’d had before. Others haven’t used them much, including one woman who told the county that her husband didn’t like hers so it wasn’t turned on.
“In general, loneliness hasn’t escalated, but it hasn’t been as good for some people as we had hoped,” Sunday said. “I think that’s partly because they still aren’t allowed out in the community, their family still isn’t able to come visit them, it’s been hard to secure a vaccine and they’re still scared. I’m hopeful that once we get over this hurdle, we’ll get more positive feedback. But a majority of people we’ve spoken to are just so very happy to have them.”
The county recently received another shipment of 29 mock animals, with plans for distribution in the coming weeks. Post-pandemic, the agency will likely continue with the program on a smaller scale, Sunday said, because the pets have been an effective tool for stress relief, even for people who aren’t feeling lonely or isolated.
Including Sunday herself. One of the office’s batches of animals included several kittens, which weren’t initially popular among applicants due to their smaller size and more limited movements.
“So I just had them on my desk,” she said. “And every now and then, I’d find myself petting one so it would purr for me. It helped with anxiety. Real pets do that. And the fake pets do that as well.”
Kate Elizabeth Queram is a staff correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.