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Interview: Robot Companions For Older Adults


Dr. Lorna Guse

Dr. Lorna Guse

Robots are taking on an increasing number of jobs in the workplace. Researchers in several countries have been asking is there a future for robot companions, and the University of Manitoba is playing an important part in this international development.

Nursing professor Lorna Guse of the University of Manitoba is leading Canada’s first project to study robots and their impact on individuals with cognitive impairments. Guse is working with “Paro”. Takanori Shibata (Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology) spent 12 years developing the Paro robot as a form of pet therapy.

Other members of the research team include Elaine Mordoch, Kerstin Roger, Angela Osterreicher (University of Manitoba), Shibata and Kazuyoshi Wada (Metropolitan University of Tokyo).

This summer, the researchers continued their study with residents at the Deer Lodge Centre, a long-term care and rehabilitation facility in Winnipeg.

For an update, AHB reached Dr. Guse at the University of Manitoba.

Ruth Dempsey: What led to your interest in robots?

Lorna Guse: My first encounter with Paro was in 2007. It was at a meeting of the Manitoba Gerontological Nursing Association. We saw a video-clip of Paro being used in a nursing home in Japan. I was intrigued.

When I was in Japan later that year, Dr. Wada took me to see Paro at the nursing home. I could see the possibilities. It was very exciting. On my return to Winnipeg, I talked to Jo-Ann Lapointe McKenzie, the chief nursing officer at Deer Lodge Centre. And she was enthusiastic about bringing Paro to the Centre so we could study resident, family and staff interaction with the robot.

RD: What does Paro look like? Is it a he or a she?

LG: Paro is a cuddly version of the baby harp seals found on the Madeleine Islands in northeastern Canada. There are male and female versions of Paro. The females have longer eyelashes.

RD: How does the robot work?

LG: Paro is covered with a soft white hypo-allergenic synthetic fur. Inside, there is a metal skeleton that holds the computer units. A layer of fabric between the fur and the skeleton contains hundreds of tactile sensors.

When you stroke or pet Paro, the sensors send information to the computer where it is stored in long-term memory. Paro responds to your touch by becoming animated and interactive. It moves its head and body, blinks its large soft eyes and coos adoringly at you. The more you touch Paro, the more responsive Paro is because of the memory function. Other in-built sensors allow Paro to respond to sight, sound, posture and even temperature.

RD: Early studies suggest that robots like Paro can improve the emotional lives of older adults. Can you give me an example?

LG: The work done by Dr. Shibata and Dr. Wada in Japan is the most extensive research to date. They have shown that long-term interactions with Paro reduce stress, and increase the number of utterances for residents with dementia. The nursing staff also report Paro has a positive effect on residents. Readers can find video-clips at the Paro site that show changes in how residents interact and communicate over time.

RD: What about your own research? Can you describe it for me?

LG: One part of our research with Paro is on family interactions with residents with dementia living in Deer Lodge Centre. We are interested in how Paro can help family members and their loved ones communicate.

Often, family members can be at a loss for what to say, how to respond and how to spend meaningful time with loved ones. These problems stem from cognitive changes related to disease processes such as dementia and brain injury. People suffering from cognitive decline often have problems expressing themselves or focusing on a conversation. They have difficulty retaining information and tend to repeat themselves.

As you can well imagine, it can be difficult and sometimes trying to visit in these circumstances. Our hunch is that Paro can provide a vehicle for better communication in these situations.

This summer, we launched a pilot study. It shows promising results with family members who see a role for Paro in their visits. For one thing, they see Paro providing some “neutral time” that would allow them to relax more during their conversations with loved ones. They also see Paro as a meaningful diversion, a sort of a party maker, offering enjoyment to all.

This is significant in the narrow world of people experiencing cognitive decline. We hope to keep building on this project next summer.

RD: Are some people more open to Paro than others?

LG: That’s true. Over the past two summers, we have found that some residents are more responsive than others.

Sometimes it has been due to medications and disease processes that limit interactions. For example, there have been times when residents simply lacked the energy to interact. We have tried to introduce Paro at times that do not interfere with the residents’ medications or rest periods. We have had a few residents who are afraid or uninterested in Paro. Overall, the response has been positive.

RD: What response have you had from the residents’ families?

Dr. Guse and Dr. Wada

Dr. Guse and Dr. Wada

LG: This has been overwhelmingly positive! Family members are appreciative of any research effort that might improve the quality of life for loved ones in long-term care. And consequently for themselves.

They have told us they feel they are doing something towards improving quality of life by participating in the research. They report their loved ones have enjoyed Paro. This is an important consideration when activities that bring enjoyment are limited. Some say their loved ones have shown a spark of their “old selves” when interacting with Paro.

RD: What do you say to those who say machines are being used as a substitute for much-needed human interaction, an excuse for inadequate staffing in old people’s homes?

LG: Robots can never replace people. And, certainly, we want to continue to support measures that enhance human interaction with all residents.

At the same time, live pets are often included in nursing homes in a way that is not considered to replace human interaction. So, Paro is really a replacement for live pets, not people. Studies have shown that live pets can have a negative effect on residents and staff. They require cleaning, for example. They can bite and scratch, and some people fear live animals. Therefore, Paro offers a wonderful opportunity for residents. And the robot also supports staff and family interactions.

RD: Some argue personal robots are more than just “tools.” They say this raises ethical questions.

LG: Skepticism abounded when computers were first being developed. Now, the increasing use of robots raises important ethical questions. We have to identify the positive impact of robots like Paro and their beneficial value as well as the risks and vulnerabilities. Certainly, existing research on Paro has established significant positive effects on older adults living in nursing homes.

RD: Paro has won star status with an entry into the Guinness Book of World Records, I hear.

LG: That’s right, the Guinness Book of World Records certified Paro as the World’s Most Therapeutic Robot in 2002.