Taeko Ota sits in the living room of Amazing Grace & Care’s assisted living in Fullerton, combing the fur of Ombi, a cat who sits on her lap.
Ombi purrs. Every now and then it moves its head back and forth or rolls back and forth and lifts its paw. Ota, 90, continues the gentle strokes.
Both are satisfied. Maybe they could do this forever – or at least until Ombi needs new batteries.
Ota, who suffers from dementia, believes that Ombi – whose name is on a tag on the collar – is real. And belief counts. Ota can be difficult in certain moods, but she is always loving and caring with the cat.
Ota’s husband Frank Ota, also 90, was recently on an afternoon visit with his wife. He knows the cat is not real. Even so, his wife only has eyes for the cat.
“Go to sleep,” Taeko Ota whispers with every stroke. “Go to sleep.”
That calm response is exactly what the Council on Aging-Southern California hoped when it bought 200 robotic pets – cats and dogs – to provide comfort to the elderly in the assisted living homes in Orange County.
The pandemic is especially harsh for people living in long-term care. Initially, the elderly suffered the most from the COVID-19 deaths. With the pandemic affecting other age groups, the elderly struggled with loneliness and depression from the isolation that came with strict health and safety protocols.
Then, a few months ago, someone from the Council on Aging came across the Joy For All Companion Pets website, which was created by members of a team that was originally formed under the toy maker Hasbro.
The potential of robotic animals to provide comfort to the elderly, especially those suffering from memory loss and dementia, was immediately apparent. Besides, the idea isn’t new. It’s not uncommon to see seniors in memory care holding dolls or stuffed animals.
The nice thing about Aging Innovations pets is that they seem to respond to human touch. Since the devices are motion sensitive, even movement nearby can trigger meowing or tail wagging.
“If that brings some light and a smile to some people, then you’re good to go,” said Libby Anderson, director of the Council on Aging’s Ombudsman Program, which sends volunteers to nursing homes to track patient care and the condition.
“That’s why we’re doing it.”
Council on Aging used a portion of the $ 165,323 from the CARES Act to purchase the robotic cats and dogs for $ 110 to $ 120 each.
“They’re expensive little fools,” said Anderson with a laugh.
The long haired cats come in silver, black, or orange on white colors. The pups who wear scarves are golden or brown on white.
But with the devices there is no litter box to change; no dog food to fill up; no vet bills.
In addition, unlike real animals, the robot animals can be sprayed with Lysol. The pets come with cleaning instructions, which the Aging Council has emphasized among nursing home operators in order to maintain hygienic conditions.
The ombudsmen, who are mostly volunteers, can determine which facilities will donate Joy For All pets, but the Council on Aging has urged them to focus on places with memorial stations.
Elena Bor, who owns and operates Amazing Grace & Care, said three of the six residents – all women – have mild to moderate dementia. One of these patients, 89, is in the hospice, is bedridden and can barely speak. But she responded immediately when the ombi cat arrived in August, kissing and hugging her.
“You can’t believe it,” said Bor about the residents’ handling of the robot animals. “It’s very nice for you.”
Dolores Smith, another resident of the board and the nursing home, knows that cats are animatronic even when they loosen their necks. The fur feels soft, but you can also feel the hard plastic of the creature’s internal mechanics. For Smith, 90, it doesn’t matter.
“It’s like being a little girl with a doll in your hand,” said Smith. “It made you feel good.”
Donna Kenworthy, the Council on Aging Ombudsman who visits Amazing Grace & Care, wishes she could bring something from Joy for All animals to larger skilled care facilities. However, she fears that if she is not with them, the robot companions will quickly disappear, which is common in places where many elderly residents have few visitors.
Kenworthy said, “You really don’t have anyone.”
The Council on Aging tracks more than 1,000 facilities in the county and cannot provide a robotic animal to everyone. But Ombudsman Director Anderson wishes they could. Even she has fallen under her battery-powered rule.
“Of course I know it’s just a robot pet. But I still tend to stroke it. Then I think, ‘This is not a real cat, why am I doing this?’ But you do it because it reacts. “