Robotic cats help soothe patients with dementia

Leann Burke/The Herald
Memorial Hospital was looking for an alternative to medication to quiet agitated patients. They found an answer in robotic cats.


JASPER — A cat sits on the nurse’s station in the Caring Hands Senior Services department at Memorial Hospital and Healthcare Center. As patients pass by, they pet it, and it purrs and meows. Sometimes, it raises a paw or rolls over.

It’s also a robot.

The cat is a Joy For All Companion Pet by Hasbro, and the staff at Caring Hands uses it and its fellow robo-cats as a behavioral intervention therapy tool for patients with Alzheimer’s disease and some other forms of dementia. The life-like actions of the robot allow the patients to feel like they are interacting with a living animal, which helps with the agitation the disease causes.

The robo-cats react based on a patient’s interaction. The more the patient pets the cat, the more it purrs, meows and moves. If the patient stops paying attention to the cat, it goes to sleep. For most patients, it’s enough like a living cat that their brains believe it is a living animal, said Jodi Richardson, director of behavioral health services.

“They often say, ‘That’s the best behaved cat I’ve seen,” Richardson said.

Sometimes patients will ask where the cat goes to the bathroom or eats. In those cases, Richardson said, staff members just tell the patient that that’s taken care of.

Caring Hands began using the cats in February 2017 after an intern wanted to conduct a research project with the cats to see if they reduced the need for medication to quiet agitation. Using a $1,000 grant from the Indiana Area Health Education Center, Caring Hands purchased 10 cats, each priced at $100. Almost immediately, the staff saw positive results.

“I think for a lot of people in the disease process, (the cat) gives them a sense of purpose,” Richardson said.

In the months since, Caring Hands staff has given out about 16 cats. Not every patient receives a cat. To determine who would benefit from the robotic friend, Caring Hands staff will look at what the patient’s home life is like. If they are used to having a pet, for example, they could be a candidate for the program. Staff members also pay attention to which patients take an interest in the cat that sits on the nurses station.

When a patient in the program leaves Caring Hands, the cat goes with them free of charge.

Caring Hands uses donations to purchase the cats.

Recently, Jackie Bockelman of Jasper set up an endowment for the cats program at the Dubois County Community Foundation in honor of her husband, Mike, who had dementia. Richardson accepted the first donation from that endowment last week.

The cats are one of several behavioral interventions staff members at Caring Hands use. Their goal is always to treat behavioral issues without the use of medication, so staff members do their best to make Caring Hands feel like home for residents. There’s a Wii where patients can play Wii bowling, a kitchen where patients who like to bake can make cookies and often music is playing. Music therapy is a major asset for Caring Hands staff, Richardson said. The staff also does a lot of reminiscence therapy where patients are asked to talk about what they remember from their childhood or decades past.

With dementia, Richardson said, a lot of the time patients won’t know anything about current events, but they’ll remember something from 50 years ago.

No matter the treatment, the goal at Caring Hands is to make patients feel dignified and human as they progress through the disease process.

“We all just want to feel human,” Richardson said. “We want to feel like we have a purpose.”

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