'Robotic cats' comforting patients with dementia at VA nursing home in Albany

December 07, 2018 07:25 PM

ALBANY - Providing care for patients with dementia is challenging. Medication doesn't always ease their agitation and restlessness. Artificial intelligence is helping.

Most afternoons, you'll find 81-year-old Tom Clark snoozing with his pet cat, Aspen, on his lap. However, this cat doesn't need to be fed or let outside. Aspen, the name of a cat he once had, isn't real – but he just loves it.


Aspen is a robotic cat with artificial intelligence built in -- designed to do normal cat stuff like stretch, purr and roll on its back.

"Sometimes, they'll even ignore you the way a cat might, typically," explained Psychologist Dr. Caitlin Holly.

She started using these robotic pets about two months ago with dementia patients at the Stratton VA Medical Center Nursing Home.

"The idea is that it's a non-pharmacological intervention that can help with anxiety, it can help with agitation, restlessness," noted Holly.

While researchers are still gathering data on the benefits of these artificial intelligence animals, the experience at the VA supports the early findings.

Clark had been a little more agitated and restless, but the cat calmed him right down.

While some may wonder why not just give him a stuffed animal, Tom's wife, Virginia, explained the difference.

"It doesn't purr. It doesn't meow. This one, the eyes go, the head turns, it stretches," she said.

All those actions happen in response to how much people interact with their pet.

"I don't know if he knows it's not real, but it calms him down," she said.

He doesn't have to share Aspen - it's only for him.

These robotic pets cost about $100 each. So far, the VA has one dog and three cats and they're looking to add to their menagerie.

While all the patients prescribed a pet are diagnosed with dementia, not all of the dementia patients here are candidates for a robotic pet.

"If a veteran really had a close connection with a particular animal, if their family member thinks they would benefit -- some of it is based on what we notice them struggling with," noted Holly.

As for Tom, a little bit of purring and cat "lap-time" eases those struggles.


Benita Zahn

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