Bark, Meow, Beep: Heritage Manor Residents Get Robotic Pets

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – All her life, Mary Ripoli has loved animals. And on Wednesday, the Heritage Manor resident got a new cat, though one that’s different from her previous pets.

This one, black with white markings on its head and paws, is robotic. On Wednesday, she and five other residents with dementia were the first recipients of animatronic animals – two cats and four dogs – as an alternative to traditional pet therapy.

“It’s a pet without the tough parts, without a litter box,” said Rocco Ripoli, Mary’s son. “She had a couple of cats and a dog. She’s an animal lover.”

“I hope it stimulates her a bit with her Alzheimer’s and gives her comfort,” added his wife, Anne Ripoli. “[People with dementia] can go in and out and lose touch sometimes, but they do see reality and hopefully this helps her.”

Though Mary was having one of her off days, both Rocco and Anne observed, she still reacted to the cat, petting it on and off throughout the afternoon as the cat “responded” with purrs and moving its paws.  The animals are covered in lifelike fur and respond to touch and sounds with realistic sounds and movements of their own, whether they be barks, meows or purrs. They can even turn over to “ask” for belly rubs.

“With many dementia and Alzheimer’s patients, they become noncommunicative as the disease progresses but they still get to use their other senses – touching, feeling, hearing, seeing – and they can connect,” said Lynne Azar, senior outreach coordinator for Jewish Family Services, a sister organization to Heritage Manor. “[These robotic animals] allow them to connect, which brings feelings of compassion, joy, love, laughter and companionship. 

Jewish Family Services’ Lynne Azar and Ken Bielecki with an animatronic dog.

“It’s been proven in research that pet therapy provides joy and comfort for residents with dementia and even nursing home residents in general,” she continued. “They’re at a stage where they’re unable to care for a pet that’s alive, but this provides the same effect.” 

The purchase of the robotic pets, made by Hasbro division Joy for All, was made possible through two grants from the Mahoning County Mental Health and Recovery Board for outreach programs, $17,000 last year and $20,000 this year. The first six were given to residents at Heritage Manor, but Azar said the organization is open to working with other senior care centers.

“I think this will be pretty popular. We started here at Heritage because we’re connected [through the Youngstown Area Jewish Federation], but I think once it’s out there, I’m sure other nursing homes will ask about it. We’re happy to look into it,” she said. “Our goal is to use those resources to provide great things for our 60-and-over community.”

As a gerontologist, Azar says she’s worked to stay on top of technological trends and worked to bring them to the Jewish Federation’s sites – it also operates Levy Gardens – when possible.

“Animatronics has come so far thanks to Disney and other companies that it’s expanded into pet therapy,” she said. “I wanted to introduce technological advancements in therapy for dementia and Alzheimer’s. … Joy for All makes these specifically for nursing homes and assisted living and specifically for dementia and Alzheimer’s residents.”

As part of its outreach programs, Jewish Family Services also offers services to residents of Mahoning and Trumbull counties over the age of 60, added Executive Director Ken Bielecki, regardless of their religion.

“We can do in-home assessments. We can provide resources. We can determine if they need to go into nursing home care or assisted living. All of our services are free,” he said.

Pictured: Lynne Azar gives robotic pets to Heritage Manor residents Mary Ripoli, left, and Mary Faulkner.

Copyright 2021 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.