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Published on: August 7, 2012
by Jason Tin for The Courier-Mail:
Dementia patients are slowly rediscovering their former selves by cuddling robotic baby seals, dinosaurs and cats as part of an ambitious research project.
Masked by an adorable and convincing exterior, the Japanese-manufactured hi-tech robots can follow voices, respond to changes in pressure and touch, learn their names, respond to light, snuggle up to those cuddling them and gently fall asleep when left alone.
The models are so realistic many of the elderly test subjects seem unable to distinguish them from real animals.
Led by Griffith Health Institute’s Professor Wendy Moyle, the study aims to determine if the robots can help patients learn to communicate and express joy again.
The baby seal robots were previously used in Japan after the devastating tsunami to comfort elderly survivors. One patient, who had not spoken in two years, surprised his carers when introduced to one of the mechanical seals.
“He started speaking to the robot after five or ten minutes,” Prof Moyle said.
“It was a very emotional lesson for staff, because they watched this man who they knew had not been speaking suddenly start speaking to the robot.
“(Families and staff) start to see the person that they thought had gone away from them.”
Prof Moyle said dementia affected one in four people over 85 and was set to become “much more problematic” as the state’s population ages.
“Family and care staff start to them as a disease – they don’t see any ways of interacting with them, they don’t see an emotional response when they start to talk to them,” she said. “It’s quite challenging.”
The team is currently waiting to receive responses to grant applications from national funding bodies and is still analysing video data from the initial study. The current phase of the research is testing the effectiveness of cheaper alternatives to the baby seal model used in the original study.
Participants, who are generally experiencing mid-to-late-stage dementia, have had a “significant” improvement in terms of “emotional response” and anxiety levels.
While many nursing homes keep live animals, the pets can become over-stimulated and over-fed as eager residents rush to shower them with affection.
Picture: Flo Holmes with the cat robot. Picture: Mark Calleja Source: The Courier-Mail
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