Say hello to my little robot friend

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Gary Tetz
Gary Tetz

If I happened to be a senior, uncertain about whether society really values me and wondering if I'd be taken care of in all my frail vulnerability, a baby seal wouldn't be my first choice for robot pet reassurance. But that's what Japanese researchers created and introduced to the United States back in 2009, and I'm not going to criticize.

I've seen movies about what happens when humans fight robots, and I won't be taking one for the team.

Since then, according to fine McKnight's reporting, a bunch of smart people have been studying whether or not Paro, the adorable baby harp seal robot, could be effectively used as an animal therapy option in nursing homes. It turns out that over a 10-week period, residents who interacted with him/her/it “were found to be more verbally and visually engaged and had less agitation than the other groups.”

So used in moderation, and assuming we can overcome pesky little problems like ethics and cost, maybe the technology can actually do some good. But I continue to question the animal selection process. I get that seal babies have had a tough go of it over the years and could use a little positive support and affirmation. But still.

It's not like there aren't other possibilities. Why not a pony, for instance? I've advocated for this before, never understanding or accepting why dogs virtually the size of ponies are welcome in a nursing home, but a dog-sized pony is not. Also, llama-sized llamas are allowed, even though that particular mammal is one of the least attractive on earth. It's simply not fair — but then again, no creature not currently extinct knows more about unfairness than a baby seal.

OK, so what about those cute little squirrels? I think the historical/journalistic record clearly answers that question. Avid readers of this column will recall that they're ravenous monsters who have frequently run wild in nursing homes across the nation and injured literally thousands of residents and staff.

This is a verifiably true story, though my use of the words “frequently,” “across the nation“ and “literally thousands” is factually — what's the word? — wrong. The more important, big-picture point is that they may look cute running around your yard, but robot or real, will tear out your throat if you turn your back. Same with raccoons. Same with beavers.

Obviously, there are many, many other options that should be carefully, perhaps prayerfully, considered before we settle as a nation and profession on the baby seal as the universal long-term care robot animal companion. Each has its own merits and flaws. For example, Uncle Jimmy, my beloved betta fish, has proven very soothing, but extremely difficult to pet. That's why we each need to keep open minds and open hearts as we navigate the tortuous selection process.

In the meantime, in the highly unlikely event that I ever succumb to the horrors of the aging process, I've already made my personal choice for robot pet — one of those big, furry rescue dogs with a barrel of brandy around its neck.

Things I Think is written by Gary Tetz, a national Silver Medalist and regional Gold Medal winner in the Association of Business Press Editors (ASBPE) awards program. He has amused, informed and sometimes befuddled long-term care readers worldwide since his debut with the former at the end of a previous century. He is a multimedia consultant for Consonus Healthcare Services in Portland, OR.


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Things I Think

Things I Think is written by longtime industry columnist Gary Tetz, who resides in Portland, OR. Since his debut with at the end of a previous century, he has continued to amuse, inform and sometimes befuddle long-term care readers worldwide.