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Fur Animals - The fur factor
01 Jan 2016

The fur factor, by The Selwyn Foundation

Real or robotic, companion animals provide a myriad of benefits for older people.

It’s not a new concept, of course, but more and more studies are showing the health benefits to older people of having companion animals around. The payoffs range from physical fitness to increased mental wellbeing.

In various studies, pet owners have been found to have lower cholesterol and blood pressure than non-pet owners. Pets – particularly dogs – help people stay more active and retain their ability to perform daily activities for longer. They increase self-esteem and life satisfaction, and dramatically lower loneliness and rates of depression. So it’s no surprise, then, that pet owners tend to live longer.

And the effect is not limited to real animals – technology is producing “sociable” companion robots that can provide similar benefits. At The Selwyn Foundation, a small “colony” of baby robotic Canadian Harp seals have been introduced into several villages. Featuring a variety of sensors throughout their fluffy, anti-bacterial fur, with touch-sensitive whiskers, and a complex system of silent motors, the seals respond to interaction with life-like noises and movements.

The seals are designed to be alternative animal companions for people who are not able to keep a live pet. An earlier 2013 trial in Selwyn Heights village had found that rest home residents benefited from this companionship and were more inclined to talk to caregivers and others, as a result of their interaction with the seal.

Now a second trial is being conducted – this time with people suffering advanced dementia. The hope is that this technology will help relax and improve the lives of dementia patients in the community.

So are robotic companions the way of the future? Well, yes, but not entirely. Garry Smith, CEO of The Selwyn Foundation, says, “We don’t believe robots will ever replace personal care or even pet animals in residential care facilities.

“Our experience shows, though, that [the seal] does help stimulate activity in residents and also brings physiological benefits, such as helping to lower blood pressure. It’s just fun for them. There is a place for robots in the future of healthcare and in ensuring the on-going wellbeing of the residents.” It seems one thing is for sure… real or robotic, companion animals should be embraced.

“Happiness is a warm puppy,” Charles M. Schulz, creator of Peanuts.

© The Selwyn Foundation 2016.