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Can robotic seals reduce stress and anxiety in people with dementia?

PARO the robotic seal. Developed in Japan and modelled on the features of a baby harp seal, PARO is the most common therapeutic pet-type robot used in studies with people with dementia. The therapeutic version (version 9) is an autonomous robot that is similar in weight to a newborn baby, and has 5 sensors that are processed by artificial intelligence software to enable PARO to respond to the user and the environment. Typically, active during the daytime, PARO can move its tail and flippers, open and close its eyes, and make sounds similar to a real baby harp seal. Paro has been around for some time invented in Japan in 2005. So, it’s taken some time to get established. It is now used in health and care services around the world It is claimed that the robotic seals reduce stress and anxiety, scientists have said. The cuddly animals respond to touch and speech. The devices look like toy seals. They have built-in sensors and their artificial intelligence allows them to "learn" and respond to the name given to them by service users. They can also react to being stroked and spoken to by wriggling, turning to the person, opening their big eyes and squeaking. Research has shown the seals can reduce stress and anxiety, promote social interaction, facilitate emotional expression, and improve mood and speech fluency. But although they were shown to enhance the wellbeing of people with dementia, there were concerns about meeting the infection prevention control requirements as they can be hard to clean. Hygiene and cleaning tests were carried out over nine months by the University of Brighton's School of Health Sciences on a 10-bed dementia ward run by Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust. The results show that PARO was maintained within acceptable limits for NHS Infection Control. Lead researcher Dr Penny Dodds, who recently moved from the university to the charity Dementia UK, said: "To our knowledge, this was the first testing of the infection prevention and control aspects in the world and we are delighted with the results. "We have demonstrated that, under controlled conditions, PARO was safe within the hospital setting for an acute care dementia unit. It is hoped that this can allay concerns from those who have been hesitant about using PARO in the NHS. "It is anticipated that PARO will receive Medical Devices Status in the UK shortly and the distributor is preparing PARO for the UK market - we could be seeing PARO on wards throughout the country in the not-too-distant future. "The successful research means we can now offer our cleaning testing protocols for use. This work is ongoing and the next stage will be to see if a weekly clean can be reduced to 15 minutes." Dr Dodds said there were similarities to using pet therapy but PARO is easier to supervise. "Unlike real pets, PARO always behaves, has rechargeable batteries, is always available - and PARO should last about 12 years," she added. "The most important aspect is the improvement PARO makes to a patient's quality of life." Dr Doug Brown, chief policy and research officer at Alzheimer's Society, said: "It's great news that PARO has sealed the deal, bringing these robots one step closer to supporting people with dementia. "With no cure for dementia and no new treatments for over 15 years, it's important to develop innovative ways to support the 850,000-people living with dementia today. "These novel seal robots can boost social engagement, improve mood and reduce agitation in some people living with dementia. Although it is vital that they are used alongside human contact, and never replace it."

Summary Staff working with people dementia are always looking towards innovation to help them improve the quality of life for service users who suffer from this disease. Paro the robotic seal is one such innovation that is claimed to reduce stress and anxiety. One could argue why not have dogs in the care facility. The trouble is they are unpredictable, they can transmit disease, and most importantly, they go home at the end of the day. There is however an ethical question we have to address when we choose to use robotics. What happens to our moral character and our virtues in a world where we increasingly have more and more opportunities to transfer our responsibilities for caring for people to robots? Where increasingly, the quality of those robots encourages us to feel more comfortable with doing this, to feel less guilty about it, to feel in fact maybe like that's the best way that we can care for people. I would suggest there is no substitute for compassion. Albert Cook BA, MA & Fellow Charted Quality Institute Managing Director Bettal Quality Consultancy

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