YPSILANTI, MI — Sadie Hamet’s dog was barking, as she playfully told it to quiet down, while Laud Brownell laughed and held her purring cat on her lap.
It was just another day with their pets at the Gilbert Residence, a senior assisted living, memory care, and nursing care facility at 203 S. Huron St. in Ypsilanti.
These pets are pretty low maintenance, though, not needing to be fed, walked or even let outside. They’re robotic, but their realistic features can make just about anyone question if they’re really alive.
And they provide much of the same comfort with their owners as live pets, do, Maureen Pawlak, Gilbert Residence director of life enrichment, said.
“It just provides that warm, unconditional loving feeling for those who can’t have pet visits, or have less visits in general,” Pawlak said. “And we couldn’t even have live pets inside for over a year during the (COVID-19) pandemic, and that’s important to a lot of people.”
The Gilbert Residence received two robotic cats and two robotic dogs from Area Agency on Aging 1-B on May 10, during Nursing Home Week. Seniors have felt more lonely in the past year due to the pandemic and restrictions on visits, so the robotic pets have lifted their spirits, Pawlak said.
Area Agency on Aging 1-B used $70,000 from a grant from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to purchase and donate 120 robotic pets, 120 therapy dolls, 100 Amazon Echo Shows, 120 Super Ears, and 140 Music players to 29 nursing homes across Washtenaw, Livingston, Monroe, Macomb, Oakland, and St. Clair counties.
The organization received COVID funds from the state to address isolation concerns among seniors, Jim McGuire, AAA 1-B director of research, policy development and advocacy, said.
“What we did is survey nursing homes and ask them what types of devices they would like to have to try to assist their residents who are quarantined in isolation,” McGuire said.
The robotic dogs and cats were among the suggestions.
“These robotic pets have the same kind of impact as people see them,” McGuire said. “They are attractive, they look cute, they do their movements and so they kind of have this companionable effect.”
Louise Verbeke is part of a long-term care ombudsman program that works alongside the Area Agency on Aging to advocate for senior residents and address their concerns.
“A majority of our calls (during the pandemic) have been about people being isolated. I mean that’s been hard on everybody,” Verbeke said. “And those are the calls that made me feel helpless.”
Visitation at the Gilbert Residence was paused in March 2020 when the pandemic first hit Michigan, Pawlak said.
“You could definitely see that people were more depressed,” Pawlak said.
When Verbeke called and offered the robotic pets and other devices Pawlak said she worked with the organizations to get them at the Gilbert Residence, where she said they’ve been a big hit.
“There was one woman that I gave it to, and she just lit up,” Pawlak said. “And it’s so nice to have somebody connect and have that feeling.”
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