Robotic pets soon may offer more than comfort and companionship for senior living residents with dementia. Researchers are working on a prototype of a redesigned pet that could offer expanded capabilities related to care, and they hope to have a product ready for market next year.

The research by Claudia Rebola, Ph.D., and graduate students at the University of Cincinnati involves pilot studies and focus groups with senior living residents and caregivers at places such as Scarlet Oaks Retirement Community, part of the CCH Healthcare network, and Episcopal Retirement Services.

Based on feedback from these sessions, the group is focusing on redesigning the robot dog to have more realistic fur and movements as well as refined eyes, nose and paws, while making room for technology in the body. Class members are concentrating on four areas: detecting / preventing falls, connecting users to caregivers and loved ones, checking vital signs and providing reminders. They envision a “smart collar” for the robotic pets that can enable these functions.

The research originated in 2017 when Rebola was working at the Rhode Island School of Design and wrote a grant for a project called ARIES, or Affordable Robotic Intelligence for Elderly Support, with researchers from Brown University and Butler Hospital and industry partner Hasbro. The team received a $1 million from the National Science Foundation to re-imagine Hasbro’s Joy for All Companion Pets, now owned by Ageless Innovation, a company created by former Hasbro executives.

“It’s fantastic to see our partner in the ARIES Project, Professor Rebola, and her hardworking students investing time and energy to benefit the lives of older adults and their families,” Ageless Innovation co-founder and CEO Ted Fischer told McKnight’s Senior Living. “Collectively, the ARIES team, including the chief researchers at Brown University’s Humanity Centered Robotics Initiative, are committed to innovations that will continue to have a positive impact for older adults. While we can’t speak directly to future innovations or specific product expansions at this time, we are continually inspired by the validated impact of our Joy for All Companion Pets and the consumer insights that drive our person-centered design methodology.”

Two large studies of the role of robotic pets in combating social isolation, loneliness and dementia in older adults are set to be published in national medical journals in the coming months, Fischer said. “We have always believed the engaging Joy for All platform will serve as the foundation for meaningful opportunities to deepen our impact through the power of play,” he added.