In the early 1990s, a researcher at Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology began work on what would become Paro, a therapeutic robot resembling a doe-eyed seal pup. Over 30 years later, Paro remains the best-known example of a robot designed to provide companionship for older adults. In 2011, Paro even made an unofficial cameo on “The Simpsons,” highlighting its cultural impact.

Japan has long been a leader in age-tech robotics due to its rapid adoption of new technology and its aging population, with 29% of its citizens being 65 or older. While increased life expectancy is generally positive, it can also erode traditional support structures. Robots have been proposed as a solution to supplement human care shortages and alleviate loneliness among older adults.

The United States, although not as advanced in this area as Japan, is also experiencing an aging population. Currently, 62 million Americans are 65 or older, making up 18% of the total population. This number is expected to rise to 84 million, or 23%, by 2054. To address this growing demographic, New York state’s Office for the Aging (NYSOFA) has been working to introduce robot pets to older adults. Since 2018, the department has distributed over 31,500 robot pets to older New Yorkers.

Acting Director Greg Olsen credits the program’s inspiration to his then-eight-year-old daughter, who bought a robotic pet from Amazon. Seeing the potential, Olsen proposed trying the robot pets with older adults. The program features robotic pets from Ageless Innovations, a company that produces lifelike robotic animals through its Joy for All brand. The collection includes a retriever-like dog, a cat, and the newest addition, the Walker Squawker, a small bird designed to assist those using walking devices.

These robotic pets are equipped with sensors that respond to light and touch, making them interactive companions. The retriever model, in particular, has been the most popular, accounting for about 60% of the total requests.

The initiative coincided with a statement from U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, who in 2018 highlighted the severe health impacts of loneliness, comparing it to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Isolation can exacerbate physical and cognitive decline in older adults, a problem worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic. Murthy recently declared loneliness an epidemic.

Research has shown that pet ownership can significantly reduce loneliness among older adults. However, for various reasons, owning a live pet may not be feasible for many seniors. Robotic pets offer an alternative. A 2022 study found that companion pets, including robotic ones, improved depression and loneliness without the risks associated with medication. The study noted that these pets provided meaningful activity and positive experiences, especially during the COVID-19 lockdowns when human interaction was restricted.

However, the study also emphasized that robotic pets are not a standalone solution. Human interaction remains crucial. Olsen explains that the robotic pet program is part of a broader initiative, including partnerships with tech companies like Intuition Robotics, which produces ElliQ, a social robot designed to help older adults stay connected with loved ones.

The NYSOFA’s robotic pet program has proven to be a valuable tool in combating loneliness. Olsen shares stories of clients who have formed strong attachments to their robotic pets. One woman declared that her robotic cat would have to be pried from her dead hands, while another requested to be buried with his robot dog, much to the surprise of mourners at his service.

In summary, robotic pets have shown promise in alleviating loneliness among older adults. While not a cure-all, they are an innovative part of a comprehensive strategy to improve the well-being of the aging population.

By Impact Lab