How a cute robot seal called Paro is bringing cheer to dementia patients

#Industry News & Stories
Read Time: 3 minutes

A robotic soft toy in the form of a baby seal named Paro is being used in a number care facilities across the world to encourage engagement in dementia patients.

Paro is very life-like with moving features, soft fur and a weight of 3kg which makes him comparable to a cat or small dog. The robot has artificial intelligence that ensures he engages with his users. He has the ability to learn and remember his own name, and he can learn behaviour like a pet would, for instance responding to strokes on the head so that the patient is compelled to repeat the stroking.

Paro is not a new experiment, he was first created in 2004, making him one the oldest robots around. He's been around long enough to give dementia experts and clinicians a good idea of how effective the robot is and in this post, I take a look at the story behind Paro and the effect he is having.

The Paro story

Paro the dementia robot seal was designed by The National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST), Japanese industrial automation pioneer Kimura Clinic and Brain Functions Laboratory. The partnership between the organisations was formed to design a robot that would interact with the elderly, particularly those who have difficulty expressing their thoughts and feelings because of dementia and other cognition disorders.

The robot is modelled on a baby harp seal both in its shape and the noises it makes. The idea behind the seal shape comes from research that showed animals that were less identifiable were easier for persons with cognition disorders to bond with. The seal shape prevents patients becoming distressed by believing it is a real animal (e.g. pet dog) and there are likely to be fewer preconceptions about the soft toy.

Paro was introduced into care services and has been playing a part in enhancing dementia patient engagement ever since...

Research by Sheffield Health and Social Care NHS Foundation Trust

The effectiveness of the robotic seal has been extensively evaluated in research by the Sheffield Health and Social Care NHS Foundation Trust (SHSC Trust). Claire Jepson, an occupational therapist at one of the Trust's specialist assessment units for dementia patients led the research project.

Claire highlighted that one of the biggest challenges staff face during the 4-8 week assessment period is managing distressed and disturbed behaviour. Paro represented an alternative to medication and other non-interactive techniques.

Paro was used in the assessment unit and Claire and her fellow researchers monitored the response of residents and carers to the seal's presence. Key findings resulting from the research included:

  • Paro creates shared experiences between two people and also attracts attention resulting in group interactions.
  • Patients engage with the seal like a baby or toddler and communicate with songs and animal sounds.
  • Paro increases alertness in patients which often facilitates carers in feeding and giving medication.

It allows people to still feel a sense of achievement, a sense of identity. They become the carer instead of the cared for.
Claire Jepsen - OT at SHSC Trust

Find out more about the seal's impact and read individual SHSC Trust patient stories in Claire Jepsen's report. View the report.

Video (2:25) - Alzheimer's Australia take a look at the impact of Paro

Alzheimer's Australia has created a video that shares how Paro has positively affected care home residents in the country. Discover Paro in action for yourself...

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