Treatment of dementia residents in nursing homes could be in line for a robotic revolution, in the wake of an international research project led by the Griffith Health Institute’s Professor Wendy Moyle.

The study’s success has prompted Professor Moyle, Director of the Research Centre for Clinical and Community Practice Innovation at Griffith University, to investigate if robotic seals invented and produced in Japan could become a cost-effective fixture in Australian nursing homes.

Dementia residents in Queensland responded positively to contact with the robots during a study of 18 residents, behaving less anxiously and with brighter dispositions.

“They were also less likely to wander off,” Professor Moyle said.

The seal robot can respond to touch and temperature. It also learns its name, responds to voice and sound, and even learns to react to words its owner uses frequently.

The therapeutic, pet-type robot also likes to be patted and cries for attention. It has tactile sensors and moves its tail and opens its eyes when petted.

It can show emotions such as surprise, happiness and anger and will cry if it is not getting much petting time. It produces sounds similar to a real baby seal and is active during the day and asleep at night.

“They use baby white seal robots because seals are neutral and unlikely to scare people,” Professor Moyle said.

“Our research compared the effects of the robot and participation in a reading group in terms of social engagement, communication and quality of life in people living with moderate to severe dementia in a residential care setting.

“It also looked at changes in participants emotional state.

“The robots were particularly useful for people with more limited cognition, but every resident responded differently.”

The robot which resembles a furry, white, cuddly toy was christened Millie during the Queensland study.

It was initially used for working with young children with disabilities and Professor Moyle’s research was based on work done on engaging children with pets.

The research is funded by the Dementia Collaborative Research Centre-Consumers and Carers and involves a team of international researchers from Australia, Germany and the United Kingdom.

Professor Moyle presented her findings at the National Dementia Research Forum at the University of NSW.

“Symptoms related to dementia, such as altered communication and depressed mood, can often cause people with dementia to feel socially isolated and lonely,” she said.

“In the past researchers have found that communication with animals can have a positive effect on older people, by increasing their social behaviour and verbal interaction, fostering the building of relationships through interaction with others, and decreasing feelings of loneliness.”

Professor Moyle described the case of one elderly resident who had not spoken for two years.

“He began patting and cuddling Millie, holding her like a baby and a look of real surprise and pleasure just came across his face.

“He held on to the paw of the robot when it was time to go and when he was invited to say goodbye to Millie, he said goodbye. It brought tears to our eyes.”

She said they are seeking further funding to research how these robots can be used and what the results will be.

The robots cost about $4500 each but this price could be reduced over time. Professor Moyle is examining the potential for the robots to take the place of pets in some nursing homes in the future.

“The presence of animals in residential care settings can place residents at risk of infection and create a number of other problems including increased stress for animals that are repeatedly fed and handled,” she said.

“It can also create conflict among residents who claim animals as their own and fear among others who do not like dogs or cats.

“Additional duties for nursing staff, such as feeding, walking, and cleaning the animals, also have to be factored into the equation.”