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The Alzheimer’s Association estimates more than 16 million Americans provide unpaid care for people with Alzheimer’s or other dementias. These individuals provided an estimated, and astonishing, 18.5 billion hours of care valued at nearly $234 billion—an immense burden for families and loved ones to take on alone.

Caring for someone with long-term needs and progressive conditions such as dementia can be overwhelming, and respite care services that provide temporary assistance offer tremendous benefits for both older adults needing support and caregivers. Outside help through safe care options give primary caregivers the critical and necessary time to rest and recharge, strike a balance between caregiving duties and personal lives, and ultimately limit burnout.

While the responsibility of caring for a loved one can be personally demanding, there is room for playful experiences that positively impact full-time caregivers, respite care workers and the older adults themselves. Everyone benefits from the power of play.

Alan Trujillo, recruitment and engagement coordinator for Home Instead Senior Care in Wittier, California, runs a program that includes the care of several patients with varying degrees of dementia. Trujillo understands the significance of taking a unique approach to each person’s care, and uses a robotic Joy for All Companion Pet cat named Goose with four patients in his care.

“The interaction I’ve had between patients and pets has been amazing,” said Trujillo. “One patient asked her daughter for a cat, but due to her dementia she’s unable to care for a real one. She was just as surprised and delighted when she met Goose. She wanted her daughter to experience it so she would potentially buy one for her. She asked me to surprise her daughter to try and talk her into getting one the next time she came into the office.”

The companionship, comfort and joy of having a robotic pet have also improved the emotional well-being of those in Trujillio’s care. A patient with Alzheimer’s who doesn’t easily interact with people talks to the cat in a soothing voice, clearly calming down when Goose is in his presence. Another patient started to remember Trujillo when they saw one another, thanks to his relationship with the cat.

Clinical studies have been conducted regarding the role of robotic pets in combating social isolation, loneliness and all forms of dementia in older adults. According to a study published by James Madison University, “the use of robotic companion cats enhances the well-being and quality of life of individuals with dementia … by providing companionship and interaction with their environment, which helps to reduce anxiety and agitation.”

Another study led by the Association of Relatives of Alzheimer Patients found that “the robotic cat has given a sense of purpose to the participants who have assumed the role of providing care to the cat. … The realization of having a pet has aroused the feeling of being accompanied, which has resulted in a decrease in the feeling of loneliness.”

Additional research is being conducted about the continued effects of integrating robotic companion pets into senior care, but initial research has been rewarding.

“Everyone wants hope, love, joy, purpose, meaning and connection regardless of their age, acuity and mental state,” said Saudia Gajadhar, senior director of marketing and communications for Comfort Keepers, a company specializing in senior care that began using robotic pets with some clients in fall 2018. “Our corporate mission is to ‘Elevate the Human Spirit’ and create joy among our community, and [robotic] pets fit very well in that position.”

Comfort Keepers ran a holiday promotion in 2018 that allowed offices to give robotic pets as gifts to clients in the program. Gajadhar and the team at Comfort Keepers have seen firsthand improvements around socialization among their clients, combating the physical effects of social isolation among the seniors that have interacted with the pets.

Tina Butler, CDP, CSA, who operates a Comfort Keepers franchise in Michigan, utilizes the pets with clients that have expressed loneliness, are unable to have a pet due to the care required, and/or exhibit agitation common with dementia. Caregivers will test the pet with the client to see how they respond; if they respond favorably, the client to receives their own permanent companion pet.

“Pets evoke such joy. Our dogs are a magnet for our clients and staff alike,” Butler said. “The pets provide unconditional love and well-needed companionship to our clients when family and/or our caregivers aren’t in the home.”

Loneliness isn’t just a symptom; it’s proven to have lasting damage. According to the AARP Foundation, the health risks of prolonged isolation are equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. When in the presence of companion pets, Comfort Keepers seniors felt less alone, and many recalled fond memories of pets they had in their past.

Caring for patients with dementia can require round-the-clock support and can result in unpredictable behavior and upsetting interactions given the nature of the condition and its progression. Infusing moments of play and companionship, whether within personalized caregiving scenarios or through the support of temporary respite care assistance, is essential to enhancing the quality of life for older adults and their caregivers.

The power of play is undeniable and enhances positive experiences not just for loved ones with dementia or other forms of cognitive decline but for families and homecare professionals as well.