Robot as good as real dog at easing lonely hours

CHICAGO (Reuters) - A friendly dog can make older people feel less isolated -- and it appears to make little difference if that wagging tail belongs to a robot doggie or the real thing.

In the picture, a resident at the NHC Healthcare assisted-living facility in Maryland Heights, Missouri, plays with AIBO, a robotic dog. Researchers found that the robot dog was about as good as a real dog at easing the loneliness of nursing home residents in a study. The woman in the photo is Gladys Moore. She is playing with AIBO, though she was not officially part of the study. REUTERS/Saint Louis University/Handout

Researchers at Saint Louis University in Missouri compared a 35-pound (16 kg), floppy-eared mutt named Sparky with AIBO, a far-from-lifelike robot dog, to see how residents of three U.S. nursing homes would respond.

“The most surprising thing is they worked almost equally well in terms of alleviating loneliness and causing residents to form attachments,” said Dr. William Banks, a professor of geriatric medicine who worked on the study reported in the Journal of the American Medical Directors Association.

Banks said pets have been shown to help older people feel less isolated. “It really improves loneliness considerably,” he said in a telephone interview.

But many senior citizens are too frail to care for a pet or have had to give up their own animals when they went to the nursing home. “They really miss that bond,” he said.

Banks and colleagues decided to see if a faux fido might offer some comfort.

The researchers studied 38 nursing home residents who were divided into three groups. One got regular visits from Banks’ pet Sparky, another got visits from the AIBO Entertainment Robot, a shiny robot dog formerly made by Sony Corp that used artificial intelligence to interact with its environment and express emotion.

The third group got no visits from either dog.

Banks said he had been sure Sparky would have the edge, but to his surprise, both dogs provided virtually equal comfort after seven weeks of visits.

While AIBO has been discontinued, Banks thinks similar robots could offer companionship for older people and might even be programmed to keep tabs on their owners, alerting emergency workers of a sudden fall.

“Loneliness is common in nursing homes. Robots may be very useful for people who cannot for whatever reason have access to a living dog,” Banks said.

Editing by Maggie Fox and Sandra Maler