People with Alzheimer’s disease or related dementia (ADRD) often experience behavioral and psychological symptoms such as depression, aggression, and anxiety. Often these symptoms are treated with antipsychotics, antidepressants, and benzodiazepines, which often have side effects.
While pet therapy is known as a cost-effective and therapeutic intervention for improving mood and behavior in older adults, little is known about pet therapy in adult day centers, despite logistical benefits such as socialization and group activities.
With the help of a cozy and “furry” companion, researchers at Florida Atlantic University’s Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing tested the effectiveness of affordable, interactive robotic cats in improving mood, behavior, and cognition in older adults with mild to moderate dementia. The non-pharmacological intervention took place over 12 visits to a day care center for adults. Participants were informed that their pet was a robot, not a live animal. Each of them chose a name for their cat, which was provided with a collar and a personalized name tag.
For the study, which was published in the journal Issues in Mental Health Nursing, researchers rated mood and behavioral symptoms using the Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Dementia Mood Scale, the Observed Emotion Rating Scale, and the Cornell Scale for Depression in Dementia. They also assessed cognition via the mini-mental state examination.
The results showed that the robotic house cat intervention improved all mood scores over time, with significant improvements in the observed emotion rating scale and the Cornell scale for depression in dementia. More than half of the participants performed better in the post test of the mini-mental state examination than in the pretest, with slight to moderate improvement in attention / calculation, language and registration. Post-test scores for Alzheimer’s and related dementia were six points higher than pre-test conditions.
Researchers often observed study participants smiling and talking to their robotic cats and expressing feelings such as “The cat looks at me like someone who listens to me and loves me.” They believed that the robot pet responded to their statements by meowing, turning its head, or winking, and that they were having a conversation with the animal. Several of the carers reported that their loved ones slept with the cat, held onto the cat while sitting, or played with the cat all the time. One participant even slept with her robotic cat while she was hospitalized.
“Because there is no cure for dementia, our project offers a way to manage symptoms naturally and without the use of pharmacological treatments that may or may not be effective and have potentially harmful side effects,” said Bryanna Streit LaRose, DNP, APRN, Main author who carried out the study as a doctoral student in nursing at FAU, together with co-authors Lisa Kirk Wiese, Ph.D., RN, associate professor and chair of Streit LaRose, and María de los Ángeles Ortega, DNP, APRN, Professor, Director of the Louis and Anne Green Memory and Wellness Center at FAU and Community Chair of Streit LaRose for the project, both within Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing. “Our procedure was affordable, safe and non-invasive.”
By using therapeutic pets instead of live pets, there were no concerns about the pet’s safety, feeding it, taking it outside, or making sure it was up to date with its vaccines. In addition, there were no concerns about participant safety due to possible pet aggressions, allergies, tripping hazards, and the cost of caring for a live animal.
“In addition to improving mood, behavior and cognition, these robotic house cats offered our participants an alternative way of expressing themselves,” said Wiese. “Importantly, improving general mood and behavior in people with Alzheimer’s and related dementias can also improve the quality of life of their caregivers and family members.”
Researchers also examined the relationship between the Mini Mental State Examination and the subscale post-intervention scores of the Cornell Depression Scale for Dementia, the Observed Emotion Rating Scale, and the Mood Scale for Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Dementia. They found several significant and strong correlations between the 11 subscales of the Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Dementia Mood Scale and Mini Mental State Examination after the intervention. Nine categories related to pleasant mood / behavior positively correlated with the mini-mental state examination score, indicating a relationship between positive mood / behavior and increased mini-mental state examination scores.
“In the United States, one in three older adults dies of Alzheimer’s or related dementia and there is currently no cure for the rapidly growing burden,” said Safiya George, Ph.D., dean of Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing. “This therapeutic interactive pet intervention has been shown to be a safe alternative to improving mood and behavior in people with dementia attending adult daycare.”
The Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing at FAU received the 12 robot pets for the project with the support of an Iota Xi Sigma grant from FAU and financial support from Ageless Innovation.