Make us your home page
Instagram

Meet Paro, a fuzzy robot designed to help the elderly

Dorothy Hartley, 89, hugs Paro, a robotic pet, at the Sunny View Retirement Community in Cupertino, Calif. Paro is designed to help engage elderly residents who might be isolated.

MCT

Dorothy Hartley, 89, hugs Paro, a robotic pet, at the Sunny View Retirement Community in Cupertino, Calif. Paro is designed to help engage elderly residents who might be isolated.

CUPERTINO, Calif. — The elderly woman cooed softly and stroked the soft white fur of the creature in her lap, while it raised its head, batted its dark eyes and made a friendly mewing sound in return.

"He's very nice," said 85-year-old Theresa McDaniel. "I've always liked animals."

But it wasn't really an animal. Residents and staff at the Sunny View Retirement Community, where McDaniel lives, have been trying out a robotic device called Paro, which was developed by a Japanese inventor to serve as a mechanical pet for elderly nursing home residents.

Designed to resemble a cute baby harp seal, Paro is an early entry in a new wave of interactive or "socially assistive" robots that university researchers and tech companies are developing for people with special needs, such as seniors with dementia, children with autism, and adults who have suffered strokes or other conditions.

Some critics are wary of such efforts, fearing they could lead to the use of machines as substitutes for human caregivers or companions. But researchers say robots like Paro can be a calming and socializing influence on people who have cognitive problems that cause them to feel anxious or isolated.

It's important to consider the ethics of using robots, said Maja Mataric, a University of Southern California professor of computer science who studies human-robot interaction. But she added that for residents of some nursing homes, "the alternatives might be staring at the floor for hours, or at a television set. What's good about that?"

Isolation is a big concern with aging seniors, according to Sunny View activities director Katie Hofman. She said staffers at Sunny View's memory care center, where residents have varying degrees of dementia, have used a pair of Paro robots to draw people out of their rooms and into conversations — reminiscing, for example, about pets they owned at earlier stages of their lives.

Sunny View has a resident cat and visitors sometimes bring dogs, but live animals can be messy or pose safety issues with some residents, Hofman said. Front Porch, the nonprofit that operates Sunny View and several other California retirement centers, is evaluating wider use of the Paro robots, which are equipped with microprocessors and electronic sensors that respond to light, touch, movement and voices. They cost $6,000 each.

During a five-month test at Sunny View, the robots helped some residents focus and stay engaged when their dementia would otherwise make them anxious or wander aimlessly, Hofman said. "We've been able to use it in place of medication at times."

Dorothy Hartley, 89, brightened when she spotted one of the Paro robots as she was rolling down a corridor in her wheelchair. She cradled it gently for several minutes as Hofman explained that Hartley, who tends to stay in her room, will come out and visit when the Paro is present.

Jerry Vroom, 92, was less enthralled. "What shall I say to you?" he asked one of the robots, before handing it off to McDaniel. "Here, you can have it," he said.

Some residents act as if the Paro is a live animal, while others clearly recognize it's not, Hofman said.

"They will say, 'You're not real, are you?' But they still think it's cute," she said. "The way I look at it is: If they respond as if it's real, we want to honor that. Or if someone else, like Jerry, isn't interested, we're not going to force it. But whatever will help them live their life in the fullest, we're going to meet them there."

Still, some critics worry about Paro. One of the most vocal, Massachusetts Institute of Technology social scientist Sherry Turkle, has warned that what she calls "faux relationships" with machines could detract from human connections.

"It's not just that older people are supposed to be talking. Younger people are supposed to be listening," Turkle said in a 2013 speech. "We are showing very little interest in what our elders have to say."

Robots like Paro might offer comfort to isolated seniors, Turkle has written, but it could "make us less likely to look for other solutions for their care."

Meet Paro, a fuzzy robot designed to help the elderly 08/31/14 [Last modified: Sunday, August 31, 2014 6:19pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

Copyright: For copyright information, please check with the distributor of this item, Tribune News Service.
    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Pinellas construction licensing board needs to be fixed. But how?

    Local Government

    LARGO –– Everyone agrees that the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board needs to be reformed. But no one agrees on how to do it.

    Rodney Fischer, former executive director of the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board Rodney, at a February meeting. His management of the agency was criticized by an inspector general's report. [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]

  2. New owners take over downtown St. Petersburg's Hofbräuhaus

    Retail

    ST. PETERSBURG — The downtown German beer-hall Hofbräuhaus St. Petersburg has been bought by a partnership led by former Checkers Drive-In Restaurants president Keith Sirois.

    The Hofbrauhaus, St. Petersburg, located in the former historic Tramor Cafeteria, St. Petersburg, is under new ownership.
[SCOTT KEELER  |  TIMES]

  3. Boho Hunter will target fashions in Hyde Park

    Business

    Boho Hunter, a boutique based in Miami's Wynwood District, will expand into Tampa with its very first franchise.

    Palma Canaria bags will be among the featured items at Boho Hunter when it opens in October. Photo courtesy of Boho Hunter.
  4. Gallery now bringing useful art to Hyde Park customers

    Business

    HYDE PARK — In 1998, Mike and Sue Shapiro opened a gallery in St. Petersburg along Central Ave., with a majority of the space dedicated to Sue's clay studio.

     As Sue Shapiro continued to work on her pottery in St. Petersburg, her retail space grew and her studio shrunk. Now Shapiro's is bringing wares like these to Hyde Park Village. Photo courtesy of Shapiro's.
  5. Appointments at Raymond James Bank and Saint Leo University highlight this week's Tampa Bay business Movers & Shakers

    Business

    Banking

    Raymond James Bank has hired Grace Jackson to serve as executive vice president and chief operating officer. Jackson will oversee all of Raymond James Bank's operational business elements, risk management and strategic planning functions. Kackson joins Raymond James Bank after senior …

    Raymond James Bank has hired Grace Jackson to serve as executive vice president and chief operating officer. [Company handout]