Robotic Pet Companions Promote Social Connections and Positive Moods

In February 2023, Front Porch Center for Innovation and Wellbeing (FPCIW) conducted a 3‐week pilot with the Joy for All Walker Squawker at Fredericka Manor Care Center, a Front Porch skilled nursing community in Chula Vista, CA. The bird is an animatronic bird that sings, turns its head, and twitches its feathers to deliver joy, fun, and companionship to older adults and their families. The Walker Squawker was originally designed as a way to remind a resident to use their walker, but FPCIW explored its use primarily as a positive engagement tool for challenging behaviors such as sundowning, resistance, and anxiety.

Our brief pilot with the Walker Squawker demonstrated a decrease in anxious behaviors among residents during and after interactions with the devices, when appropriately “dosed” and administered. Our analysis suggested that the most noticeable behavior change during and after interactions was the improved positive socialization of residents:

  • 60% of residents showed decreases in anxious behavior during and post interacting with the Walker Squawker
  • Observed anxious behaviors decreased from 16.0% to 3.4% during the interaction
  • Bright affect increased from 8% to about 40% during and post interaction

As in previous FPCIW pilot studies with robot pet companions given proper caregiver training and use, the Walker Squawker positively helped improve residents’ behaviors and socialization in memory care and skilled nursing communities.

Paro, a robot baby harp seal, first set us on our exciting journey on the opportunities and impact of robot pet companions on engaging with older adults. Our 2015 six-month study on Paro based on 920 tracking surveys from Front Porch life enrichment and care staff across six Summer House memory care neighborhoods produced dramatic results:

  • Produced calming effects for residents, in 73% of wandering and 59% of anxious behaviors
  • Helped increase social behavior by 97% among isolated adults
  • Helped 153 out of 193 residents (79%) stay alert from initially sleepy behavior, resulting in improved moods, socialization, and appetite
  • Helped residents to avoid psychotropic medications in 61% of cases when medications were considered

As robotic pets are increasingly common tools to support older adult engagement, particularly with higher levels of care, appropriate caregiver training and application become important to successful and sustained adoption of the technology.

Read the CIW’s Final Report about the Walker Squawker

Read the CIW’s Final Report about PARO.