The Robot Alternative

Gary Tetz
Gary Tetz

Have you ever had some well-meaning someone give you a gift that turns out to be more like a job?

The long-term care equivalent would be, “Happy birthday, Valerie. You're the best administrator ever, and we sure do appreciate your leadership. So a bunch of us chipped in and bought you a Venus flytrap to brighten up your desk. Enjoy!”

Then they sing and clap and disappear, which is when you discover it needs to be fed with a toothpick and a hand-rolled ball of bloodworms every week for the next 20 years. “Thanks a lot!” you mutter.

I'm paying the price for a “gift” like that right now — a colorful Betta fish I've named Uncle Jimmy. He was given in earnest commemoration of my _5th birthday, and I don't doubt the sincerity of the giver — only her compassion.

Though at first I resented the sudden responsibility, I have to reluctantly admit it feels good to have another living creature in my barren apartment. I don't know why — Uncle Jimmy refuses to speak to me, and dives behind a plastic fern whenever I approach. But even his hostility has become comforting, and perhaps he feels the same.

At some level, I suppose we all experience what Dr. Bill Thomas, founder of The Eden Alternative, has called “the three plagues” afflicting seniors: loneliness, helplessness and boredom. Animals, plants and people are the time-honored antidotes, though ideally not in that order.

That's why I have mixed feelings about the robotic cat Swedish researchers have developed. It purrs, meows and seems to calm dementia patients, without the risks of allergies or infection, and that's fantastic. But still, is this really the best we can do?

I appreciate technology as much as the next technophobe, but it's sad to be reminded there just isn't enough real life and nurture to go around — and that someday Uncle Jimmy will be loved and fed by a robotic bald guy.