The elderly man, a Hope Hospice patient with dementia, sat with his new furry cat on his lap, stroking its fur and bonding, his daughter by his side. The feline was a robot pet, which Hope Hospice began giving to patients in December.
Then the man tilted his head toward his daughter and whispered, "You know this cat isn't real."
The daughter was taken aback. The animatronic cat was designed to comfort older adults in need of companionship and, given her father's cognitive decline, she wasn't sure if he would notice. After all, it did move and meow.
"Yes," the daughter responded. "It's just here if you feel like petting it."
"It's great," the dad told her. "I just wanted to make sure you knew it's not real."
This anecdote is a favorite of Gia Barsell, manager of dementia services at Hope Hospice, who is overseeing the distribution of the Joy for All Companion Pets. They are battery powered, and when stroked, they become alert and make realistic noises and small movements.
Made by Ageless Innovation, the pets are designed specifically for people living with Alzheimer's disease and other forms of cognitive decline. A donation from NorCal Minis car club enabled Hope Hospice to purchase 20 cats, and Barsell has given out five so far.
"I like to think that some of them maybe do think they are real," Barsell said. "Some have tried to feed them or put the cat's mouth in a water bowl."
But she said the pets do more than provide a furry companion.
"What these cats are doing is maybe bringing someone back to a pet they had when they were growing up or they had when they were in their own home, enjoying family life," Barsell explained. "It is not about the pet; it's about the memories.
"It may or may not be about the pet specifically but it is more about the emotions associated with the pet," she continued. "It reminds them of simpler times when they could sit and tactilely stroke their pet. They elicit positive emotions."
The cats have helped lessen the impact of pandemic-related isolation on patients with dementia, Barsell noted, who are prone to side effects from long-term social isolation and loneliness.
"Here we are, nearly a year into this pandemic, and our patients continue to go without the benefit of face-to-face companionship visits from our volunteers, and in many cases, even the patient's own family," Nikki Tildesley, manager of volunteer services at Hope Hospice, said. "They are truly suffering."
Plus, Barsell added, the pandemic has caused a change in routine, which causes these patients to struggle. Although pharmacological interventions may make an agitated patient easier to care for, Barsell questions whether that is best for the patient.
Clinical studies conducted with Joy for All Companion Pets have shown positive results in reducing anxiety and agitation. This resulted in more socialization with others, decreased episodes of delirium, and less need for medications.
One caregiver in a study reported on a patient who had been withdrawn, rarely interactive and frequently mumbled incoherently.
"With the introduction of the pup, the patient would smile, laugh, talk to and pick up the pet," the care provider said. "Her son observed that, as a result, she was more responsive to him."
"It's taken off like wildfire -- we've had so much success," Barsell said. "We have not had one unsuccessful match yet."
The robotic pets are preferable to live animals for this population not only due to their lack of maintenance but also because a patient may pet it too hard, resulting in a cat or dog defending itself and hurting the patient, she also pointed out.
The cats cost about $110 each and, pleased by their success, Barsell is looking at puppies, for $50 each. Hope Hospice is seeking grant funding and donations to get the lap-dog models and continue the program.
One of the cats was placed in the common room of a facility, where it began to meow, Barsell said.
"We let the patient process it, and told her she could stroke it. As I put it in her lap, she leaned in it and snuggled it and said, 'It's purring.' Sure enough, it had started vibrating," Barsell said, a happy coincidence.
"They also bring their paw up to their mouth like they are licking it, and they show you their belly to get you to rub it. They are darling," she added.
Some patients keep them at the foot of their beds.
"They pick them up when they want," Barsell said. "It is an amazing gift, especially at this time of so much social isolation."