A fuzzy, baby harp seal named Caspar is making a difference in the care of patients with dementia, thanks to the work of Lillian Hung, a clinical nurse specialist and researcher with Vancouver Coastal Health.
“He is a personal robot, or PARO, with artificial intelligence and because he is white, patients named him Caspar,” said Hung. “When they say its name, it will open its eyes and turn its head and lean toward the patient.”
The US$6,000 “social robot” was funded through a grant by the Woodward’s Foundation, and has been in use for about two years at Vancouver General Hospital. While the therapeutic benefits of live-therapy animals have been well-researched, using real animals with dementia patients in clinical settings presents real challenges, particularly among the frail and elderly. But Caspar seems to be getting the job done.
“We have a lot of older adults with cognitive impairment as part of the trend of the aging population,” said Hung. “When patients with dementia are under stress they might resist the care nurses are trying to provide, so I looked for an evidence-based, non pharmacological approach that could bring down patient stress and provide comfort.”
PAROs have been widely used in nursing-home settings in Germany and Denmark, and, in the U.S., it’s already a Food and Drug Administration-approved medical device covered by insurance when prescribed by a doctor.
Hung wondered if the PARO seal would bring about the same benefits — improved mood, positive social interactions and decreases in anxiety — seen in long-term care homes, when used in an acute-hospital setting.
In a study released in December 2019, Hung found that the robot helped patients with dementia “uphold a sense of self,” facilitated social connections and humanized the clinical setting.
“We had a person who came into the acute medicine unit who had dementia but came in with a cardio condition, and wouldn’t let us do an EKG or blood work, and he wouldn’t speak for three days,” said Hung. “When I brought PARO to him, he began petting PARO and the seal looked at him with his big eyes and the patient started to talk to him. He calmed down and we were able to do the blood work.
“The robot doesn’t judge him, the robot is non-threatening. One client tucked it right under her neck and said, ‘I like it,’ ” said Hung. “It gave her a sense of security.”
Equipped with dual, 32-bit processors, microphones, tactile sensors under the fur, and touch-sensitive whiskers, the robot responds to patients by moving its tail, opening and closing its eyes and leaning toward people that speak to it.
Hung said she would like to see more policy and structural support and medical funding to provide more PAROs to patients in B.C. hospitals.
“One patient said, ‘This is very fragile but there is a certain beauty to things that are fragile,’ ” said Hung. “He was mirroring his situation: He was fragile and he was able to give care to the robot that he couldn’t give to himself and it comforted him.”