Robo-pets bring life to Manitoba nursing home

Seniors living in a rural personal care home in Manitoba have some new friends — robo-pets and the battery-powered animals are turning out to be therapeutic.

Tears after normally-quiet patient living Alzheimer's disease starts talking

Irene Weidner, 91, interacts with a robo-cat at the Ashern Personal Care Home. The addition of robo pets to the rural Manitoba nursing home is bringing smiles to its residents. (John Einarson/CBC)

For the last year, staff at a rural Manitoba nursing home have been trying to make their 20 residents happier. Sometimes they play music, other times they try giving out coffee or a treat, but nothing has seemed to work — until the addition of some furry robotic pets.

"It's fascinating to see their eyes open up, to see how happy they are when they saw this pet," said Marco Buenafe, a clinical team manager at the Ashern Personal Care Home.

"Because most of these residents are like, farmers, they know they like animals … It changes their mood tremendously."
Robo-pets and battery powered animals are proving to be therapeutic. 1:06

The robotic companion pets resemble real cats and dogs, have fake fur and motion sensors. Two of them came from "Wool N Needles," the town's knitting group. For years, its members have been raising money for different causes.

'Everybody has tears in their eyes'

June Price is a member of the knitting group. She saw the robot pets on TV with seniors and called the rest of her group to see what they thought about buying a couple of them. 

"I said let's get on the internet there … and we found them and we decided 'hey we need a cat and a dog,'" Price, 84, explained.
June Price saw robot pets while watching TV and called the rest of her knitting group to see if they could get them for the personal care home in Ashern. (John Einarson/CBC)

She gets emotional talking about the moment the pets were delivered and put in front of the residents for the first time.

"Everybody had tears in their eyes," Price said, talking about a patient living with Alzheimer's disease who hasn't spoken much in the last few years — that changed with the pets arrived.
Marco Buenafe, a clinical team manager, has noticed an improvement in residents since the addition of the robo pets. (John Einarson/CBC)

"She just kept looking at that cat and then you could see the smile coming on her face and then she started talking about her mother and father and the farm and all of us were standing there, we're standing there crying."

After Wool N Needles' initial donation, a community member and a resident's spouse bought two more robo-pets for the care home. 

'My little darling': Resident

Irene Weidner is one of the residents who now spends time with the robo-pets when they come out for an hour on Tuesday mornings.

"It's my little darling," she said, before going on to talk about life on her farm, cows and her love for animals.

"It's nice having her, I enjoy it."

Darlene Hargot has worked at the personal care home for the last 15 years and said the robo-pets from Hasbro are already proving to be therapeutic.

She points to a resident who was having a bad day that staff couldn't seem to make better.
The pets come out once a week for an hour and are used at times when a resident is feeling down. (John Einarson/CBC)

"We tried everything with her … I brought out the dog, and within two minutes of the dog barking and everything, her face just warmed up," Hargot said.

"She was smiling, she was talking to the dog for an hour. We couldn't take [him] away from her."

The future for retirement homes?

Could robots be the future for retirement homes? Toronto scientist Frank Rudzicz certainly thinks so.

The assistant professor at the University of Toronto led a research team that developed a robot boy. He interacted with residents at a seniors home in Toronto for a pilot project.
Frank Rudzicz thinks there will be more robotic pets and people used in retirement homes in the years to come. He's pictured here with Ludwig the robot. (CBC)

Rudzicz said, with a shortage of caregivers and an aging population, expect to see more robots used in health care.

"The trick is going to be what kind of interaction are we going to have with them," Rudzicz said.

In an email, Hasbro said it's sold thousands of the companion pets in Canada but couldn't say how many of those have gone to personal care homes because the products are sold through distributors.

'When do they go to the bathroom?'

Goldie the dog is louder than the robo-cats at the nursing home and makes noise when motion is detected. (John Einarson/CBC)
Hargot said she's had to explain to the residents the robo-pets are not real animals.

"They want to feed the animals and we explain that they can't be fed," she said with a laugh. "When do they go to the bathroom? and it's like they don't go to the bathroom, so it's nice to have that sense of humour."

Hargot said the animatronic animals are part of the personal care home family now.

Price said Wool N Needles' donation has proven worthwhile and hopes the robo-pets are still there when she's ready to move into the personal care home in Ashern.

"I can't see moving away, so I hope one of them is in good shape when I get here, dog preferably."

Robo cats and a dog have been bringing smiles to people who live at the Ashern Personal Care Home. 2:40

About the Author

Austin Grabish

Reporter

​Austin Grabish is a reporter for CBC News in Winnipeg​ where he files for TV, web and radio. ​​Born and raised in Manitoba, Austin has had an itch for news since he was young. He landed his first byline when he was just 18. Before joining CBC, he reported for several outlets with work running across the country.​ Email: austin.grabish@cbc.ca