Hospices Innovating with Robotic Therapies During Pandemic

Animated robotic pets are making rounds to hospice patients across the United States. Due to spread of the coronavirus pandemic, some hospices have brought robotic animals into the folds of their therapy programs to continue reaching isolated patients and their families from a distance.

Animated robotic animals feature sensors and speakers in responsive technology for interactions through motions, sounds and touch. These robotic animals are taking on the forms of various companion pets such as dogs, cats and even baby seals with lifelike noises and movements.

Ageless Innovation, formed out of toy giant Hasbro (NASDAQ: HAS), is among the companies rolling out these animatronic creatures to hospice providers throughout the nation. The company focuses on creating products that foster meaningful connections through play, joy and happiness aimed at reducing the cost of care and improving the quality of life among older adults, their families and caregivers.


As an Ageless Innovation spokesperson shared with Hospice news, COVID-19 had a role in growing demand for robotic pets among vulnerable hospice and palliative care populations.

Joy for All’s orange tabby cat. Photo courtesy of Ageless Innovations.

“We have been addressing the epidemic of loneliness and social isolation for older adults well before the pandemic,” said the spokesperson. “Ageless Innovation has teamed up with a dozen U.S. state agencies — including Florida, New York, Alabama, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and more — to distribute thousands of Joy for All Companion Pets to socially isolated seniors who have been hardest hit by this pandemic. We want to ensure that facilities, caregivers and seniors have the tools they need to combat social isolation, loneliness and cognitive decline.”

Hospices have been limited in their ability to reach patients in person at various facility- and community-based settings during COVID-19 as the pandemic forced many skilled nursing and long-term care facilities to close their doors to visitors in order to minimize exposure. Deemed non-essential during state closures nationwide, volunteer-based services such as pet therapy programming have taken a hit as the outbreak continues.


“We have had really active pet programs for a long time as part of our services to patients and families,” said Shelia O’Leary, volunteer coordinator at Northern Illinois Hospice. “For many years, we’ve had pet visitors, and that’s one of our most popular and most loved programs. We have five certified handler dog teams that had been out visiting patients and family requests, but that all came to a halt with the restrictions that occurred because of COVID-19.”

Northern Illinois Hospice’s dog handler teams began holding virtual telehealth visits when seeing patients in-person was no longer an option. While visually beneficial, the inability to physically pet the dogs was something patients missed, according to O’Leary, forcing the hospice to “get creative” about alternatives. This led them to purchase a robotic golden retriever puppy with donated funds from its foundation. 

The robotic pet therapy program piloted with Ruffy, who became part of a hospice patient’s care plan in 2020. The robotic puppy has thus far only been used for that patient’s individualized care. Virtual visits with Northern Illinois Hospice volunteers allowed the patient’s robotic puppy to interact with real pet therapy dogs via video.

Ruffy with hospice patient Midge Anderson. Photo courtesy of Northern Illinois Hospice.

“Pet therapy was something that was uniquely suited to enhance that patient’s quality of life, she really loved animals,” O’Leary told Hospice News. “Our nurse brought Ruffy in as part of her telehealth pet therapy visit. It enhanced the quality of those video calls, they were just more interactive, a little bit longer, a little bit more spirited — all because our patient was holding her robotic dog.”

Pet therapy can offer patients benefits such as reducing anxiety and feelings of isolation and easing depression. Research has identified significant links between social isolation and increased risk of early mortality among older and seriously ill patients. Social isolation during the coronavirus emergency has substantially impacted the hospice population, as well as seniors in general. Ancillary services like pet therapy can also boost volunteerism and distinguish a hospice among its competitors.  

Robotic animals can provide comfort, companionship, relaxation, and reduce stress and loneliness, making it a valuable alternative for our patients and creating a positive interaction with them, according to Craig Schrolucke, senior director of mission engagement and communication at Ohio’s Hospice.

“For many, these robotic animals that intuitively interact with the patient can provide a level of comfort and relaxation, helping to reduce anxiety,” said Schrolucke. “We are always looking for innovative ways to advance our superior care and superior services to our patients, be it through high-touch interactions or technology.”

Kent Anderson, CEO of Ohio’s Hospice, identified the technology several years ago, seeing the potential benefits of using robotic animal therapy as a safe alternative to therapy involving live animals, which can be impractical in community living settings where animals are not permitted. Robotic therapy animals are one way Ohio’s Hospice provided personal interaction to patients who were isolated and not receiving visitors due to COVID-19 restrictions.

The program has since been put on pause until the pandemic passes as the hospice provider navigates the rules and guidance of each of its regional locations. Plans to restart robotic pet therapy services when the time is right are in the works, according to Schrolucke.

“I’ve seen patients respond to the [robotic] seal when they have very little response to other stimuli,” said Karen Parziale-McFall, director of business development for Ohio’s Hospice. “It has a calming effect on the resident [and] helps stimulate conversations and interactions between them. Many residents will start sharing fond memories about pets that they’ve owned in the past.”

Karen Parziale-McFall with hospice patient and robotic seal PARO. Photo courtesy of Ohio’s Hospice.

Using technology like robotic pets is one of the many innovations paving new roads to patient services, as more providers adopt tools like predictive analytics, remote patient monitoring and other systems. A growing number of hospices are seeking to leverage technology and find its balance among in-person services featuring the human (and animal) touch so vital to end-of-life and serious illness care.

Future growth of robotic therapy pets in hospice lies amid a sea of unknowns regarding what COVID-19 will leave in its wake.

“We are experimenting with a lot of different things, and I know that some of these things will carry forward as we figure out how to integrate more wonderful options, more ways to reach out, to make a difference, and more ways to enhance quality,” said O’Leary. “There are lots of things that fall into that category, we just haven’t had time to think about how it’s all going to work. It’s everything that we can do right now to just keep up with this pandemic.”

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