Baby seals help in health care

28 August 2017
Dr Elizabeth Broadbent, Associate Professor, Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences

Hi-tech ‘pets’ lend emotional support for lonely dementia patients living at home.

Cute, fluffy baby seals may soon be common 'pets' in many New Zealand homes.
Well, not real baby seals - they're actually robots.

A University of Auckland study shows the seal-like robots - which make cute baby seal noises and go by the name of Paro - may have a key role to play in the care and wellbeing of New Zealand's escalating number of dementia sufferers.

Although already in use in some retirement villages in New Zealand, the new study shows the 'pets' may also provide vital emotional support for people with dementia living in their own homes.

The study, led by Dr Elizabeth Broadbent, associate professor in psychological medicine at the University's Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences, shows Paro helps sufferers smile and talk more, gives them a sense of purpose and something to love and cuddle.

"We have noticed," she says, "some people see robots as their friends and we are looking at the factors contributing to this."

She says the robots may help these people stay in their homes longer and delay the time when they need to go into institutional care, potentially saving millions of dollars of health care costs (last year dementia care cost the New Zealand economy $1,676m).

Broadbent, who is in the United States on a Fulbright scholarship to further her research, has been studying human-robot interaction in a health context for 10 years.

"These findings are important," she says. "Dementia affects around 45 million people worldwide, a number expected to triple by 2050." (In New Zealand the 62,000 who have the condition is expected to rise to 170,000 in 30 years.)

"Most people are cared for at home, so it is important to find ways to help people manage the emotional and behavourial symptoms of dementia, so they can delay or prevent a move to institutional care," she says.

"There is still a lot of research to do and more trials are needed to assess whether or not the robots are helpful - and who is most likely to benefit. Not everyone will want a Paro.

"Various other kinds of robots are being developed to help people with dementia at home. So far Paro is the most developed and tested but we are working on other robots that can provide reminders and alert others if something is wrong."

Paro looks - and sounds - like a baby harp seal. Made in Japan, it responds to touch, position, light and voice to move its flippers and tail, lift its head, blink its eyes and make cute baby seal noises.

It was initially trialled in New Zealand in 2011, at Selwyn Village in Auckland, by Broadbent and her colleagues - a study which showed it helped reduce loneliness among the retirement village's residents. Now the University's latest research shows there are also benefits for dementia sufferers living in the community.

The study, conducted over 12 weeks, compared reactions from patients who had a Paro at home (with a family member caring for them) or in daycare, and those who did not have one at all.

"Those interacting with Paro were seen to smile more and to talk more to staff during daycare sessions," says Broadbent. "Most caregivers reported positive effects, including reduced anxiety and enhanced mood."

Broadbent says not all people reacted positively to Paro. The study found those with better cognitive function or moderate dementia responded better than those who were more impaired.

A Deloitte dementia economic impact report commissioned by Alzheimers New Zealand and released in March shows costs have increased by 75 per cent since 2011, rising from $955m to $1,676m last year. This figure is expected to balloon to $2.7b by 2030.

Broadbent is also researching the effectiveness of Korean-made iRobi robots in giving practical help to people with chronic lung disease. Sixty patients have taken part in the exercise in which the robots measure oxygen levels and heart rates, and give medication reminders.

Results have yet to be released, but the disease (known as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease or COPD) affects at least 200,000 New Zealand adults, most over the age of 40, according to the Asthma Foundation of New Zealand.

"Robots are another piece of technology - like people use apps on their phones - but they will not replace visits to the doctor or nursing care," says Broadbent.

However, their role in elderly care is expected to grow as technology advances and the population ages. In New Zealand there were over 711,000 people aged 65 and over at the end of last year, a number expected to grow to up to 1.5 million by 2046.

The Ministry of Social Development's Office for Seniors says by 2056 a quarter of all New Zealanders will be aged over 65; while the number of those aged over 95 will grow from 5,800 to over 42,000.