The sound of purrs and meows echo around Norma Williamson’s room.
Despite the noise, Ms Williamson says she feels peaceful.
She’s holding a robotic kitten on her lap, which reminds her of the cats she raised when she was younger.
“You can hold them, you can pat them, you can talk to them, and you can tell them stories and they never ever repeat them,” Ms Williamson said.
“It never answers you back.”
Ms Williamson is a resident at Carinity Kepnock Grove, an aged care facility in Bundaberg, 400 kilometres north of Brisbane.
Residents spend time with a robotic cat, named Kitty, and a robotic dog, named Jojo.
The robotic pets include artificial intelligence to respond to residents and make life-like movements.
Ms Williamson said they were wonderful to cuddle.
“It’s very good for someone who wants company,” she said.
Danielle Gibbs, a diversional therapist at the home, said the robotic animals were changing the residents’ lives in positive ways.
“If you have someone that’s non-verbal, it brings out a reminiscent side to them,” she said.
“We’re seeing a decrease in anxiety and depression.
“It provides a therapeutic sensory experience for them and it’s providing comfort.”
Ms Gibbs said also they helped to bring joy.
“It can provide the opportunity for the residents to essentially look after them which boosts their self-esteem, and that in turn boosts interactions and decreases social isolation,” she said.
“It’s such an important tool when you’re combatting social isolation in aged care.”
‘The person they remember’
Griffith University researcher Wendy Moyle, who has been studying the effect robotic animals have on aged care residents for the past 15 years, said it had been an amazing journey, but it had its challenges.
“When we first started doing this work, we had a lot of difficulties, particularly with aged care staff and also with residents’ families,” Professor Moyle said.
“They thought that these were toys rather than robots.”
Professor Moyle said staff and family sometimes felt offering robotic pets was similar to treating residents like children, but their reactions were surprising.
“They’ve often seen their family member just sitting with a blank face, a blank affect, not talking a lot, not smiling, not engaging with the world,” she said.
“We give them this robot, and families suddenly see the person smiling, engaging with the robot, rocking the robot, talking with it.
“They start to see them as the person they remember.”
Professor Moyle said robotic animals weren’t a replacement for live therapy animals but were an important tool.
“You can’t bring in live therapy animals all the time or every day,” she said.
She said live animals could take time away from caring for the residents.
“The staff have to walk it, they have to take it outside for it to go to the toilet, they have to hygiene it, they have to feed it,” Professor Moyle said.
“Robots don’t require all the necessary elements that you do with a live dog.
“I think bringing in a therapy dog every now and again is great, but these sorts of robots you can have them there every day, 24 hours a day.”