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Yonkers Aging Office Uses Robopets to Combat Senior Isolation

The Yonkers Office for the Aging, in New York, recently launched a novel pilot program that uses robotic companion pets to fight social isolation and depression among vulnerable senior residents.

Two seniors with a robotic pet companion.
Photo courtesy of Ageless Inovation
The Yonkers Office for the Aging has launched a pilot program to help seniors combat social isolation and depression with robotic pets.

The COVID-19 pandemic left many older adults at greater risk of social isolation and prompted new government programs, many of which centered on skills training as a means of promoting online interaction. And while robots have gained ground recently in areas like delivery services and even police work, their role in human health and services is still emerging.

The program was first announced in September 2021 by Yonkers Mayor Mike Spano and the Yonkers Office for the Aging (YOFA), in partnership with the New York State Office for the Aging and the Westchester County Department of Senior Programs and Services.

According to YOFA Director Kelly Chiarella, the New York State Office for the Aging had an existing relationship with Joy For All, the company that produces the robotic companion pets.

YOFA, which serves residents aged 60 and over, selected participants for the program by using a loneliness scale. The approach involves posing questions to individuals about their emotional state and rating them on a zero-to-five scale. This is something that the agency started using during the COVID-19 pandemic to help connect individuals to mental health resources but, she said, it was also useful in deploying this program.

Participants in need receive a robotic dog or cat — dubbed Milo and Percy, respectively. Distribution started in fall 2021, but is still underway. Once delivered, the pets belong to the participants indefinitely. The majority of delivered pets have gone to homebound clients, but Chiarelli said that some have also gone to interested seniors in nursing homes.

While Chiarelli underlines the impact of these pets in combating social isolation, depression, and even offering a conversation piece for seniors to share with family members, she said the ultimate benefit they bring is joy — especially for those who may be used to having a living pet.

When delivering the pets, Chiarelli said, YOFA will show clients how they are operated: with a switch at the bottom to turn them on, off, or on mute. The pets are still able to move while muted, offering a quiet alternative for those with audio sensitivity or those in a shared space that still want to enjoy the tactile sensation.

Kids witting with a senior and their robotic companion cat.
Robotic companion pets
Courtesy of Ageless Innovation
As part of the program, regular assessments are conducted every three months to examine the impact the robotic companions are having on loneliness and depression.

“We like to see the reaction that the clients offer, which is really the best part of this,” Chiarelli said.

It was through a real-life example of joy’s impact on the aging mind that this idea was born decades ago, according to Ted Fischer, CEO and co-founder of Ageless Innovation, the parent company of Joy For All, which spun out of Hasbro. The vision was inspired by Fischer’s relationship with his grandmother, a dementia patient who gave him a real-life example of the power of joy and laughter for aging adults.

The product itself is reminiscent of the iconic Hasbro product FurReal Friends, which debuted in 2002 as an electronic plush toy for kids. Fischer explained that the feedback on that product proved that, while designed for kids, older adults were enjoying the technology as well.

“In the older adult population, there was this incredible need for interactive companionship; there was a huge epidemic of loneliness and isolation,” he said, pointing to a 2020 study that focused on the benefits of animatronic pets in reducing loneliness.

Fischer said that when it came to designing the product for seniors, the necessary technology for the audience was different. Research showed that this population wanted more realistic features — achieved with traits like a realistic purr that vibrates through the body, paw pads, tapered whiskers and even a heartbeat.
Julia Edinger is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Toledo and has since worked in publishing and media. She's currently located in Southern California.