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Robotic seal used in therapy at Macon’s Carlyle Place

Dogs and cats are the conventional choice for animal-assisted therapy, but Carlyle Place, Navicent Health, recently adopted an unusual kind of pet: a robotic baby harp seal.

The $6,000 cuddly medical device, called Paro, was made by Japanese inventor Takanori Shibata for use by patients in hospitals and extended care facilities where live animals can’t logistically be kept.

Weighing about 6 pounds, Paro has soft white antibacterial fur and dark wide eyes that look back at humans when they speak. It can even remember interactions with individuals by remembering their voice and touch. It flops its tail, bats its eyelashes and makes the sounds of a real baby harp seal.

Residents of Cambridge Court, Carlyle Place’s memory care wing, put a pink bow on Paro and renamed it, “Lucille the seal,” or “Lucy” for short.

Since Lucy first arrived in September, Carlyle Place Executive Director Thomas Rockenbach said she has been very therapeutic for residents.

“She’s got a couple hundred sensors built into her fur, her eyes, and she reacts to how someone speaks to her, strokes her (and) holds her,” Rockenbach said. “What we see is that (Lucy) encourages residents who might otherwise not be engaged to become engaged and participate (and) become a little more vocal and have conversations.”

Rockenbach said he first learned of Paro in an article he read about innovations for seniors with cognitive challenges. After researching it, he forwarded his findings to Carlyle Place’s Residents Development Committee, which expressed interest in buying one of the seals.

“I felt like it would be a really good tool for the residents here,” Rockenbach said. “This is something that doesn’t require follow-up care and feeding (and) that the residents interact with very well.”

In his research, Rockenbach learned that Georgia Tech had a Paro it was studying. So in August, a group from Carlyle Place traveled to Atlanta to meet the seal before buying one.

Carrie Warren, a health care education coordinator who has a “deathly fear” of dogs, said she was apprehensive on the way to meet the baby harp seal.

She didn’t know how she’d react, “but when they brought Paro out and turned it on, (there) was just like no fear,” Warren said. “It’s very non-threatening, and I remember thinking, ‘Oh, my God. This is going to be so wonderful for our residents.’ ... I think I played with it more than anyone else.”

A SEAL THAT’S A BIG DEAL

Paro is designed to be calming, said Wendy Rogers, co-director of the Human Factors and Aging Laboratory at Georgia Tech.

“(Shibata) specifically decided not to have something look like a dog or a cat that we would have expectations about,” Rogers said. “You don’t have any expectations for how this robotic seal should act, so it’s not in any way strange to you.”

Rogers is in the process of analyzing data from research recently conducted on Paro. Most past research on Paro has focused on using it for people with severe dementia or cognitive impairment.

“What we were interested in assessing was whether Paro would also be a source of comfort or stress reducer for even people who are healthy older adults,” Rogers said.

In her first study, 30 older adults were brought into the lab, and researchers videotaped each individual’s interactions with Paro.

“Almost 95 percent of (participants) pet Paro or spoke to it or interacted with it in a positive way,” Rogers said, noting only one person out of 30 didn’t like it.

The study showed that older adults were very receptive to Paro and said they thought it could be something that would be relaxing and enjoyable to interact with, Rogers said.

To quantify engagement, researchers coded the nature of each interaction by noting whether the participant looked at Paro, talked to it, sang to it or petted it.

“One thing that’s interesting is that there’s a lot of differences between individuals and how actively engaged they are,” Rogers said. “It could be that the benefits of Paro being relaxing are really dependent on how interactive you are with it (or) how engaged you are.”

Rogers said the school may do another study in conjunction with Carlyle Place that would assess whether Paro can actually reduce stress.

“Older adults are under a lot of various kinds of stress (like) family stress but also physical stress (and) emotional stress,” Rogers said. “If having Paro there to interact could reduce their stress, that would be very valuable. ... But we have to prove that scientifically.”

Danny McCrary, director of health services at Carlyle Place, said the home’s Paro, Lucy, definitely calms some residents in the memory care wing.

“Because of this disease, you’ve got to have some type of intervention in place to redirect them,” McCrary said. “They start having their feelings escalate, and we really didn’t have anything (to help). I mean, we would take them around individually ... but (Lucy) is a whole other instrument to use to redirect them.”

Often, residents get stuck on one specific thing they worry about, but Lucy helps “refocus” them, McCrary said.

Anna Hancox, a concierge in Cambridge Court, could tell one of her residents was becoming upset, so she brought Lucy out, and “it changed everything.”

“It gets them thinking about something different than what they were worrying about,” Hancox said. “Sometimes it works for that individual, sometimes it doesn’t, but I think it’s the timing. If I can catch it right at the beginning, when the individual is first getting upset, it works.”

Jeanette Tally, an 85-year-old resident of Cambridge Court, recently held Lucy in her lap and called her a “big baby,” which is appropriate considering Lucy’s charger is a pacifier that’s inserted into her mouth. Tally said she had dogs growing up.

“I think (residents) can’t relate to what a baby harp seal is,” Hancox said. “They love her, but ... who has seen a baby harp seal before?”

McCrary said he thinks Lucy reminds people of their past pets. He said he doesn’t see any drawbacks to having Lucy around.

“(Residents) get attached ... It’s that cuddly, warm feeling. It’s a pet,” McCrary said. “We’re going to try to get some more of them. We need them.”

To contact writer Laura Corley, call 744-4382.

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