For Seniors in One County, Robotic Pets Help Ease Pandemic Loneliness

The animatronic dogs and cats respond to their caregivers by barking or purring, wagging their tails and rolling over for belly rubs.

The animatronic dogs and cats respond to their caregivers by barking or purring, wagging their tails and rolling over for belly rubs. Courtesy Oswego County Office for the Aging

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

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. 

Resident Darleen Clark with her new cat. (Courtesy of Oswego County Office for the Aging)

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.

NEXT STORY: Basic and No-Cost Steps Agencies Can Take to Defend Against Hackers

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.