Robotic pets help Florida seniors make friends

Robotic pets help Florida seniors make friends

It’s happy hour at The Fountains at Boca Ciega Bay, a retired community in Saint Petersburg. Seven old people are spinning around a table, red wine and soft drinks on hand.

On the work surface, lined up as if in a parade, sit a group of seven cats and dogs.

From a stone’s throw away, they look like stuffed animals.

But then one of the dogs, Buddy, turns his head and barks. A pale gray cat named Izzy rolls over on its back and says, “I love you.”

At the dawn of the pandemic, Florida used an unlikely tool to help isolated seniors battle loneliness and memory loss: robotic pets.

Related: The Seminole dementia facility uses moving pets to nurture memory for the patient’s convenience

The state wasn’t alone — elderly departments across the country have purchased electronic pets, officially known as Joy for All Companions and Created by Ageless. But Sunshine State has been by far the biggest buyer, having distributed more than 11,500 robotic pets over the past two years.

Today, with vaccines widely available and effective, many older adults have resumed normal social activities. But robots may be here to stay.

In this nursing home, they have become a resource for the community.

“Brandy and Buddy are getting married in a month,” Sue Quigley said. 78, Refers to the two robotic dogs surrounding the herd. “One of the cute high school kids who served us dinner volunteered to be their wedding planner.”

“My dog, the Irishman, is a maid of honor,” said Mardi Cunningham, 73.

Related: Are robots the future of dining in Tampa Bay? This restaurant owner thinks so

Happy Hour, which occurs daily in the Fountains, began a few years ago – residents of Quigley, Jack Rickert, and Vonda Catledge started it as an excuse to get out of their rooms.

But more people have joined in, often with their pets Joy for All, since the robots started taking drinks last year.

“After the dogs came in, people I didn’t know would come and say, ‘Thank you so much for bringing me happiness,'” Quigley said.

Sue Quigley, far left, 78, of The Fountains at Boca Ciega Bay, Jack Rickert, 96, and Fonda Catledge, 84, laugh next to their robotic pets on Wednesday in Saint Petersburg. Many residents of retirement community have interactive pets that can bark, purr, turn their heads, roll over and more. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]

The Florida Department of Aging has given robotic cats and dogs — which typically cost $130 each — free to senior residents as part of the state’s response to the pandemic, according to agency spokesperson Sarah Stephenson. The state spent nearly $1 million on the initiative, which expired in June.

Many seniors said it was hard to avoid giving pets a feel. They have a little “velvet rabbit” effect.

“One of our happy hour group members passed away a few months ago — seven or eight dogs attended the memorial service, including her dog,” Quigley said. “They were well-behaved! The animals looked at who was talking, and not once did they bark.”

“You read things in them. But it’s amazing how responsive they are to situations,” said Rickert, 96.

Jack Rickert, 96, of The Fountains in Boca Ciega Bay, Vonda Catledge, 84, picks up her robot dog, Ginger, on Wednesday in St. Petersburg.  Many retirement community residents have interactive pets that can bark, purr, turn their heads, roll, and more.
Jack Rickert, 96, of The Fountains in Boca Ciega Bay, Vonda Catledge, 84, picks up her robot dog, Ginger, on Wednesday in St. Petersburg. Many retirement community residents have interactive pets that can bark, purr, turn their heads, roll, and more. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]
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Multiple studies have indicated that interactions with robotic pets have been associated with reduced loneliness and depression in older adults.

Many found that pets reduced the use of psychiatric medications and improved the mood of both dementia patients and their caregivers.

“If I could do it all over again, I would easily pay $130 for that dog,” Quigley said. “I know they were free, but I would pay double that.”

Sue Quigley, 78, of The Fountains at Boca Ciega Bay, and Jack Rickert, 96, leave happy hour with their robotic pets on Wednesday in St Petersburg.
Sue Quigley, 78, of The Fountains at Boca Ciega Bay, and Jack Rickert, 96, leave happy hour with their robotic pets on Wednesday in St Petersburg. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]

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