In aged care residents get 28 minutes of human interaction a day. Could robots help?

A device resembling a baby harp seal which helps people with dementia has become the first robot to be registered by Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration for use in health care. 

Called PARO, the mechanical seal is listed as a ‘psychophysiological biofeedback system’ and is designed to be used as a therapeutic tool in hospitals and nursing homes. The robot is programmed to cry for attention and respond to its name. It includes an off switch.

When turned on, PARO seems to ‘come to life’ through a combination of touch, sound, visual and temperature sensors, responding and adapting its behaviour when held, patted and spoken to.

Professor Wendy Moyle from Griffith University is a leading researcher in evaluating the use of social robots in aged care settings, particularly their use with the people with dementia.

She says using robots like PARO is not about taking the human element of care away, but rather adding something additional for people to engage with. 

She says: “…many years ago, we did some work looking at how often, for example, in nursing homes, did nursing staff engage with people with dementia. Very sadly, they’re busy people. And they were engaged with this population 28 minutes in a 24-hour period.” 

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In 2017, Moyle led the largest and most rigorous research on the seal to date, in an NHMRC funded trial, publishing more than 10 papers.

She says those studies looked at the seal’s impact on the behavioural responses of people with dementia, particularly agitated behaviours like lashing out, verbal responses, not sleeping, wandering.

The randomised controlled trial took place across 28 long term care facilities in South-East Queensland and involved 415 participants with dementia. Over a ten-week period the study looked at three groups – one with the robot seal, one with an identical soft toy with no robotic elements, and one control group. 

In the trials, Moyle says they deliberately took the human out of the picture to understand PARO’s impact. “So the research assistant came in, gave the robot and then left.” 

They found PARO did have a positive impact on behaviour, mood and engagement. And the non-robotic soft toy also had a positive effect, but to a lesser extent. 

“So there’s a long time where people are left alone. And there’s a lot of time where they can have opportunities to be engaged with other things. So that’s the way I’ve always thought about the use of robotics.”

She says a robot like PARO for people with dementia is a bit like animal therapy.

“You can’t leave a dog or a cat with a person with dementia, memory loss, cognitive impairment, they forget to feed it, they forget to water it,  hygiene it. So having a pet robot is actually a big advantage.”

Unlike many newer social robots, the PARO doesn’t share any of the data it collects beyond its artificial fur casing and it doesn’t require Wifi, only a powerpoint to re-charge. The power cord’s plug is designed to look like a dummy, which connects to the mouth of the baby seal.

Paro credit rubra licensed under cc by nc nd 2. 0
PARO recharging its batteries / Credit: Rubra licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Moyle says in terms of robotics, PARO is quite old technology. The seal was initially commercialised in Japan in 2005, and released in Europe and the US in 2008 and 2009. There are now more than 7,000 PAROs in use across 30 countries.

As the Australian Government works towards releasing its first National Robotics Strategy, slated for March, health and aged care is likely to be one of the technology’s applications.

A 2022 Robotics Roadmap for Australia says robotic technologies are increasingly being used for a range of clinical, healthcare and aged care tasks. Companion or therapy robots like PARO form part of this mix.

Moyle doesn’t think the TGA approval will affect the robot’s use in aged care, but could potentially improve access for people under the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

And she thinks there are some things which could be improved on, either with the PARO, or with other aged care robots. It’s expensive, big and heavy. 

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Moyle sees the potential for robots to help with a range of things in aged care. Particularly communication, providing a simpler mode of telepresence than an iPad – allowing residents to contact family and friends – but without needing to navigate a touch screens or a tablet’s camera.

But she worries that a lot of technologies intended for aged care are made by engineers with little knowledge of the sector, and the lack of easily accessible information for people to know what’s available and understand the evidence and research about different products.

In terms of the forthcoming robotics strategy, Moyle says she hopes it will ensure there’s a strong voice for women working in the sector. 

“Because most of the technology is about men, unfortunately. And that’s men across journals, conferences, development, voice …  it’s really about putting woman out there, as they’re very capable.“

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