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Annette J. Wick - Befriending Technology as We Age

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In the far reaches of my memory, my four-year-old self pulls on the leather leash of a wooden dog with red wheels acting as its legs. The toy, vintage by now, was the first exposure my siblings and I had to owning a pet, to having something other than a teddy bear as our security blanket and friend.

Nowadays, science and toymaking have advanced to include modern technology. In place of the little wiener dog or stuffed animals, robotic pets are now paired with veterans, children, or those who experience dementia or advanced illnesses, to provide a level of comfort and companionship which is not readily available under such circumstances.

The wooden dog is packed away, awaiting to be used by a grandkid. While technology might render those toys obsolete, it’s also helping us to find creative ways to provide comfort and safety for our loved ones.

Robotic Dogs and Cats

In a news article about robotic companion pets for individuals with advanced illnesses, the photo accompanying the piece included a robotic dog which resembled my now deceased spaniel. I was hooked. Should I experience dementia, the toy would be an ideal companion for me. And for many others whose needs were far greater than mine.

Capital Caring Health, an organization based in the Washington, D.C. area, aims to provides just that - a companion for those requiring the “highest level of advanced illness care.” Armed with studies which have proven how pet ownership lowers anxiety, provides stability, and offers the ability to self-soothe, the organization has focused on supporting veterans and those experiencing dementia by providing them with these robotic pets.

Constructed as dogs or cats, the pets come in a variety of shades. They are programmed to interact with humans and respond to touch just like an actual pet. A dog might wag its tail when stroked. A cat’s interactions are more randomized, as one might expect. Capital’s motto for this effort is “no need to feed or walk or clean up after them—just enjoy their love.”

At age 83, both my mother-in-law and father-in-law often mourn the death of their Goldendoodle. Given some of their physical health challenges, dog ownership is no longer feasible them. However, a robotic pet might be a good option. My in-laws would each benefit from reliving happy memories of their former pet, and interactions, as well as the presence and movement, of a current, robotic pet.

Toy Manufacturers Move into Wellness Market

When a group of Hasbro toy designers entered the wellness market, the first product they attempted to design was that of a robotic pet. “Fueling this new initiative was the insight that there was a void of products which bring fun and play to the older adult market and the belief that play knows no age limit,” according to Ageless Innovation’s website.

In 2015, Hasbro launched a companion cat with a lifelike coat and soft heartbeats. The team was astounded by the narratives around how isolation, loneliness and cognitive decline were all impacted positively by the power of play. Their next effort brought forth the companion pet dog. In 2021, in the United Kingdom, David Moore, dementia lead at a national care home charity, explained, “although he was skeptical about the idea when he first saw it, it does works really well for people with dementia…it’s not always a practical option to keep a real-life pup,” when the upkeep and the responsibility can be overwhelming. Instead, these dogs and cats react to the sound of a voice, creating a two-way interaction, enriching the experience without placing undue burdens on the owner or the care home.

Through Ageless Innovation, skilled facilitators are trained to help identify those who would benefit the most from these pets, especially individuals experiencing dementia or in a present state of distress.

Robotic Suits

 Not to be outdone by pets, Superflex has designed wearable robotic suits, appropriate for training soldiers carrying heavy loads or for aging adults who need an extra hand. The suit fits over most of the body and delivers a “jolt of supporting power to the legs, arms, or torso exactly when needed to reduce the burden of a load or correct for the body’s shortcomings.”

Consider the case of an elderly person using a walker. The suit uses a variety of sensors to detect movement styles and where power is needed the most. If one were to place their hands on a walker, yet their weak wrists could not respond in quick fashion, the suit would send a jolt to the sensor near the wrist and add support to the movement.

Superflex is not alone in this market, there are many others, such as Harvard, MIT, and traditional car manufacturers, seeking to turn their manufacturing capabilities into our superpowers.

As for me, I don’t have the pocketbook to shell out the monies for a suit. But, having a robotic dog walk alongside me to stimulate my mental and physical well-being would go a long way toward keeping me independent and living well.

Annette Januzzi Wick is a writer, speaker, and author of I’ll Have Some of Yours, a journey of cookies and caregiving. (Three Arch Press) and is a recipient of a 2020 NSNC award. A frequent contributor to Cincinnati.com, her work has appeared in Cincinnati Magazine, nextavenue.com, Shanti Arts, 3rd Act Magazine, and others. Visit annettejwick.com to learn more.