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Robot pets help St. Petersburg seniors make friends

They were meant to help isolated older adults during the pandemic. Now the robots are helping these nursing home residents form friendships.
Jack Rickert, a 96-year-old resident of The Fountains at Boca Ciega Bay, pats Irish, a robotic dog, on Wednesday in St. Petersburg. Several retirement community residents own interactive pets that can bark, purr, turn their heads, roll over and more.
Jack Rickert, a 96-year-old resident of The Fountains at Boca Ciega Bay, pats Irish, a robotic dog, on Wednesday in St. Petersburg. Several retirement community residents own interactive pets that can bark, purr, turn their heads, roll over and more. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]
Published Sep. 22|Updated Sep. 23

It’s happy hour at The Fountains at Boca Ciega Bay, a St. Petersburg retirement community. Seven older adults circle around a table, red wine and sodas in hand.

On the countertop, lined up as if in a processional, sit a group of seven cats and dogs.

From a stone’s throw away, they look like stuffed animals.

But then one of the dogs, Buddy, turns his head and barks. A pale gray cat named Izzy rolls over on her back and says, “I love you.”

At the dawn of the pandemic, Florida employed an unlikely tool to help isolated older adults fight loneliness and memory loss: robot pets.

Related: Seminole dementia facility uses animatronic pets for memory care patient comfort

The state wasn’t alone — aging departments across the country bought electronic pets, which are formally known as Joy for All Companions and made by Ageless Innovation. But the Sunshine State was by far the biggest buyer, distributing more than 11,500 robotic pets over the last two years.

Today, with widely available and effective vaccines, many seniors have resumed normal social activities. But the robots may be here to stay.

At this nursing home, they’ve become a source of community.

“Brandi and Buddy are getting married in a month,” said Sue Quigley, 78, gesturing to the two robotic dogs flanking the pack. “One of the sweet high school kids who serves us dinner volunteered to be their wedding planner.”

“My dog, Irish, is the maid of honor,” said Mardy Cunningham, 73.

Related: Are robots the future of Tampa Bay dining? This restaurant owner thinks so

The happy hour, which happens daily at the Fountains, began a few years ago — residents Quigley, Jack Rickert and Vonda Catledge started it as an excuse to get out of their rooms.

But more people have joined, often with their own Joy for All pets, since the robots started coming to drinks last year.

”After the dogs came along, people I didn’t know would come up and say, ‘Thank you so much for bringing joy to me,’” Quigley said.

Sue Quigley, far left, a 78-year-old resident of The Fountains at Boca Ciega Bay, Jack Rickert, 96, and Vonda Catledge, 84, laugh next to their robotic pets on Wednesday in St. Petersburg. Several residents of the retirement community own interactive pets that can bark, purr, turn their heads, roll over and more.
Sue Quigley, far left, a 78-year-old resident of The Fountains at Boca Ciega Bay, Jack Rickert, 96, and Vonda Catledge, 84, laugh next to their robotic pets on Wednesday in St. Petersburg. Several residents of the retirement community own interactive pets that can bark, purr, turn their heads, roll over and more. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]

Florida’s Department of Elder Affairs provided robotic cats and dogs — which typically cost about $130 each — for free to senior residents as part of the state’s pandemic response, according to agency spokesperson Sarah Stevenson. The state spent almost $1 million on the initiative, which ended in June.

It’s hard to avoid assigning sentience to the pets, several seniors said. They have a bit of a “Velveteen Rabbit” effect.

“A member of our happy hour group passed away a few months ago — seven or eight dogs came to the memorial service, including hers,” Quigley said. “They were so well-behaved! The animals looked at whoever was speaking, and they didn’t bark once.”

“You read things into them,” said Rickert, 96. “But it is surprising how well they respond to situations.”

Jack Rickert, a 96-year-old resident of The Fountains at Boca Ciega Bay hands Vonda Catledge, 84, her robotic pet dog, Ginger, on Wednesday in St. Petersburg. Several retirement community residents own interactive pets that can bark, purr, turn their heads, roll over and more.
Jack Rickert, a 96-year-old resident of The Fountains at Boca Ciega Bay hands Vonda Catledge, 84, her robotic pet dog, Ginger, on Wednesday in St. Petersburg. Several retirement community residents own interactive pets that can bark, purr, turn their heads, roll over and more. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]
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Interactions with robotic companion pets have been linked to decreased feelings of loneliness and depression in seniors, multiple studies suggest.

Several found the pets reduced use of psychotropic medications and improved the mood of both dementia patients and their caregivers.

“If I could do it again, I would pay $130 easily for this dog,” Quigley said. “I know they were free, but I would pay double that.”

Sue Quigley, 78, of The Fountains at Boca Ciega Bay, and Jack Rickert, 96, leave happy hour with their robotic pets on Wednesday in St. Petersburg.
Sue Quigley, 78, of The Fountains at Boca Ciega Bay, and Jack Rickert, 96, leave happy hour with their robotic pets on Wednesday in St. Petersburg. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]

Joy for All Companion Pets are available for purchase at https://joyforall.com.

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