Ypsilanti seniors receive robotic companions to reduce feelings of isolation

Interactive pets, electronics to help reduce social isolation in nursing home residents

Gilbert Residence resident Mary Ellen with her new dog. Photo courtesy of Area Agency on Aging 1-B. (Area Agency on Aging 1-B)

YPSILANTI, Mich. – The past year has been especially isolating for seniors in nursing homes. To help with this, those living at Gilbert Residence assisted living facility in Ypsilanti have been given robotic pets and new ways to connect with loved ones.

Gifted by the Area Agency on Aging 1-B (AAA 1-B), the electronic cats and dogs bring their owners comfort and companionship by purring, barking, blinking, wagging their tails and turning their heads.

One “dog” has already been given to a woman who experiences dementia and has declined over the past few months, said Gilbert Residence life enrichment director Maureen Pawlak.

“When it’s more difficult to reach somebody through our usual ways of reaching them, an animal has a way of making someone smile,” Pawlak said in a release. “I hadn’t seen this lady smile in a while. She beamed. Babies, animals, music – those things really reach the residents.”

In addition to the nonshedding pets, AAA 1-B is using a CARES Act grant to provide baby dolls, Amazon Echo Show 8 tablets, Simple Music Players, Super Ear listening devices and therapy dolls. The new devices help reduce social isolation by connecting seniors with family through video visits, playing music and giving them something to nurture.

In total, AAA1-B is giving away over 600 different devices to 29 nursing homes within its service area. The nonprofit agency serves more than 760,000 seniors ages 60 and older and adults with disabilities in Livingston, Macomb, Monroe, Oakland, St. Clair and Washtenaw counties.

The new interactive devices also act as conversation starters for nursing home residents and encourage interaction, according to Mary Katsarelas, one of three ombudsmen advocates in AAA 1-B’s service area.

The device initiative began with the Michigan Long Term Care Ombudsmen Program, a program advocating for nursing home residents and their families.

“Nursing home residents who haven’t had contact with loved ones over these many months experience extreme loneliness, they feel helpless and withdrawn, and may have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder,” Katsarelas said.

“Isolation is an ongoing concern in nursing homes,” she said. “These items are going to keep making an impact in the lives of these residents for a long time.”

The $70,000 used to fund the initiative came from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services’ Aging and Adult Services Agency.

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Sarah has worked for WDIV since June 2018. She covers community events, good eats and small businesses in Ann Arbor and has a Master's degree in Applied Linguistics from Grand Valley State University.