Robotic baby seal Paro still scoring well with residents

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Resident at Front Porch, Southern California’s not-for-profit provider of senior living communities.
Resident at Front Porch, Southern California’s not-for-profit provider of senior living communities.

A controversial robot named Paro may help reduce agitation in nursing home residents with dementia, a new study suggests.

Paro, a robotic baby harp seal introduced to the United States by Japanese researchers in 2009, has raised questions about the role of robotic devices in long-term care. 

At the time of Paro's release some criticized the use of electronic helpers or pets to comfort long-term care residents as “inhuman,” according to a 2010 report in the Wall Street Journal. Others brought up ethical questions about the device, such as whether or not to tell residents it was a robot.

While those concerns are valid, the furry companion may work as an animal therapy option for nursing home residents who can't interact with live animals, Australian researchers said in the September issue of the Journal of Post-Acute and Long-Term Care Medicine

Their study divided residents into three groups: one that had 15-minute sessions with Paro, one that had similar sessions with a stuffed toy, and a third group that received regular care.

After a 10-week period, residents who interacted with Paro were found to be more verbally and visually engaged and had less agitation than the other groups.

Those positive results don't mean that a resident's care plan should be Paro-centric, or use of the robot is an alternative to human caregivers, researchers said.

“[Paro] should not be used to replace staff time, rather  [it]should be used during those inevitable periods when staff are otherwise occupied, or when the individual may benefit from the comfort [Paro] offers,” they wrote.

Regular stuffed toys may also be used for similar results in long-term care facilities that  can't accommodate the robot's hefty price tag, researchers noted. 

Paro currently costs around $500 — a fraction of its original $6,000 price.