Robotic pets rekindle positive memories at VA’s Community Living Center

Published 12:00 am Friday, November 19, 2021

By Alex Britt

Salisbury VA Public Affairs

SALISBURY — Staff members from Salisbury VA’s Community Living Center (CLC) — which houses the facility’s long-term residents—recently distributed 12 robotic dogs and cats to be shared among CLC and Hospice Veterans. Studies show these animals can be beneficial for a range of older adults.

The Whole Health team partnered with staff from Geriatrics and Extended Care (GEC) to address health and wellness among the residents.

“These are different from toys or traditional stuffed animals,” said Dr. Christina Vair, psychologist and Whole Health Director. “They are designed to simulate a pet. They blink, move their eyes, and make pleasant noises. They can be especially helpful to patients with dementia but also can benefit individuals without cognitive issues.”

Marine Corps veteran Richard Hodgin, who was a bit unsure at first about the robotic animals, eventually asked if he could have one. He promptly named it after a beloved pet he’d had many years ago, tucked it under his arm, and soon the Purple Heart recipient was sharing stories from when he was younger.

“We used to have dogs at the house, and they would drive the neighbors crazy,” said Hodgin. “At Least I won’t have to worry about them running away.”

Salisbury VA Director and Navy veteran Joseph Vaughn watched as the veterans interacted with the robotic pets and told stories of his own animals and how they make him feel.

“I have pets myself,” said Vaughn. “And I know the love and joy they bring to one’s life. I am excited that the CLC residents have the opportunity to receive these pets and hopefully it will bring a smile to their faces.”

Vair said one of the main benefits to having robotic pets is reminiscence therapy.

“It engages them in reminiscing,” she said. “Some of our patients may not remember what happened to them yesterday, but they have vivid memories about their childhood. Robotic pets serve as a prompt for patients and staff to engage on a more personal level. It opens the door to more conversations as they reflect on happy memories or life experiences.”

Vair and GEC leadership believe these pets have great potential, especially given the additional isolation that COVID-19 has created for veterans.   

“Regarding social isolation, a number of studies show that giving people in a nursing home something to take care of improves their mood,” she said. “Being able to care for something or show affection has been demonstrated to increase quality of life.”

The pets already have been effective in reducing a resident’s worry when distressed. This resident even took the pet to a medical appointment for comfort. Whole Health continues to work to improve the lives of CLC veterans by purchasing additional items such as raised garden beds, sound machines, sensory aids and an indoor golf simulator. “We’re going to continue to do all we can to enhance the lives of our long-term residents,” said Vaughn. “Sometimes seemingly minor changes make the biggest difference.”