Following a trial at Selwyn Heights retirement village in 2013, the Selwyn Foundation has now introduced four robotic seals – or healthbots – to promote interaction and provide comfort for residents in Selwyn rest homes.

Each PARO robot, invented by acclaimed robot developer Dr Takanori Shibata, takes the form of a fluffy white baby Canadian harp seal that responds to touch by making soft noises, moving its head and tail and opening its eyes.

They are said to provide care similar to that derived from pet therapy, although Selwyn Foundation CEO Garry Smith is careful to clarify that the robots are not a substitute for other forms of care.

“We don’t believe robots will ever replace personal care, or even pet animals in residential care facilities.  Our experience shows, though, that PARO does help stimulate activity in residents and also brings physiological benefits, such as helping to lower blood pressure.  PARO is just fun for them.  There is a place for robots in the future of healthcare, and in ensuring the on-going wellbeing of residents.”

Last year’s trial, which received global attention after publication in the Journal of American Medical Directors Association in 2013, found that residents who had sessions with PARO were less lonely and more engaged.

A trial is planned for early next year to explore ways in which robotic pets may help people with dementia.

“The next trial will investigate whether PARO is useful for people with dementia and their caregivers in the day-care environment and at home,” says Dr Elizabeth Broadbent, a senior lecturer in psychological medicine at the University of Auckland, who oversaw the trials using PARO at Selwyn.

“This may have implications for helping people in the community cope with dementia.”

The purchase of the four PARO robots, which cost around $27,000 in total, was made possible by a grant from The Charles Rupert Stead Trust.

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