woman holding toy dog

Robotic pets are being used in Florida and New York to help older adults in senior living communities, individual homes and apartments combat the effects of social isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Joy for All Companion Pets from Rhode Island-based Ageless Innovation, a company formed by a group of former Hasbro employees, are being distributed to 375 socially isolated seniors living with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias through a partnership with the Florida Department of Elder Affairs. More than 1,100 pets already have been distributed in New York state through a partnership with the Association on Aging in New York.

New York was the first state to test these pets in 2019 with isolated community-based older adults. The pilot placed 60 robotic pets — 30 cats and 30 pups — with socially isolated older adults living at home in 12 counties across the state. Pilot participants were identified using the DeJong Gierveld Loneliness Scale.

“We hope these companion robotic pets may help calm individuals living with ADRD and provide some respite for their caregivers,” Florida DOEA Secretary Richard Prudom said in a statement. “Our participation in this innovative program will help many older adults improve their daily mood and give them a greater sense of well-being because of the companionship provided by the interactive pets.”

“This pandemic has impacted the entire aging network and we are working tirelessly to address ongoing concerns, including isolation,” Greg Olsen, acting director of the New York State Office for the Aging, said in a statement. “We are utilizing innovative ways to combat the public health emergency of social isolation and loneliness, and the robotic pet project has extensive evidence showing the overwhelming value to the older population. Expanding the access to these pets will help thousands of older New Yorkers by offering companionship.”

The robotic pets look, sound and feel like real pets, according to Ageless Innovation.

“They are a powerful solution for many who love having pets yet are no longer able to manage the day-to-day care of a real pet,” Ted Fischer, co-founder and CEO of Ageless Innovation, told McKnight’s Senior Living. “This alternative form of pet therapy has been proven to enhance the well-being, sense of purpose and quality of life of individuals with dementia. Independent clinical studies show a significant reduction in agitation, social isolation, depression and expressions of sadness among older adults. They have also been shown to enhance interactions for caregivers and family members of older adults.”

The company worked in partnership with the Florida DOEA and the Association on Aging in New York to provide a discounted price to allow the states to maximize the number of pets they could distribute. Suggested retail pricing is $109.99 for the cats and $129.99 for the dogs. Placement is determined by each state agency, and recipients will be able to keep their robotic pets long after the COVID-19 isolation protocols end.

Lisa Schuhle, director of the Broome County, NY, Office for the Aging, said many older adults who love pets no longer can take care of them. 

“Robotic pets are a wonderful substitute. They meow or bark, move and can be loved and snuggled,” Schuhle said in a statement. 

“Our participants fell in love with the pets from the moment they adopted them into their lives,” Andrea Montgomery, director of the St. Lawrence County, NY, Office for the Aging said in a statement. “They gave the pets names, daily affection, and even sleep with them for comfort. This program has significantly reduced the levels of reported loneliness and isolation among our older adults. I wish we could give one to every client.”