Animal-assisted therapy has been developing for decades, based on the notion that a connection with a pleasant intelligent animal can improve a person's social, emotional, or cognitive functioning. While belief in supernatural powers of our furry friends has largely subsided, there is no question that many people benefit from their affectionate presence, allergies aside.
But what if no animal is to be had?
The Lutheran Caring Centre in Hong Kong found an innovative solution: a fluffy robotic seal that bats its eyelashes has become a favorite among the Hong Kong institution's elderly dementia patients.
Named Paro, which is short for "personal robot," the electronic seal is controlled by inbuilt sensors that respond to touch, light, temperature and sound, replicating some of the behaviors of a real animal.
Social worker Chester Cheung says Paro has had an incredibly positive effect.
"Usually with dementia patients, we provide therapy by stimulating their senses using objects such as a plasma ball or things with different textures," he says. "Paro can stimulate their sense of hearing and touch. Moreover, because of its appearance, it can build a relationship with elderly people, liven up the therapy and make it less boring. It can also help them recall their previous experience of taking care of pets or even children."
That's what Paro does for Lee Yau-fong, an 84-year-old patient with mild dementia and depression. "Paro? Of course I like him, how can I not like him. Right?" he says. "Paro, I pamper him even more than I pampered my dog in the past. Now I really pamper him."
Animal-assisted therapy, often using dogs, horses and other animals with whom communication can be established, aims to improve patients' social, emotional, or cognitive functioning. (Using an iguana for instance might not have quite the same effect.) There are two schools of equine therapy alone, for example – riding horses to better various functional aspects.
Critics say that animal assisted therapy generally provides no more than a quick fix and cannot substitute for in-depth therapy. They also point to an absence of evidence for long term improvement. None of that bothers advocates of animal aid: it's even been used in southern Israel to help children traumatized by incessant rocket attacks.
So for some it does just the trick - and Dr. Elsie Hui, the head chief of Shatin Hospital's geriatric unit, explains robots are more convenient and cost effective.
"At my hospital we have pet volunteers coming on Sundays to visit our patients. But they are high maintenance," Hui says. "They need to be trained, and their owner usually needs to be present, and you have to take care of them."
Eighty percent of the patients here say they feel happier after playing with Paro.
After a day's activity, the robotic animal has to be charged. But residents say that even in its sleeping state, Paro has their seal of approval.
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