The largest and most rigorous social robot study ever undertaken has shown a positive albeit modest effect on agitation in people with dementia, according to the lead researcher.
The research published last week in the Journal of American Medical Directors Association was led by Professor Wendy Moyle from Griffith University and built on her previous studies showing benefits for people with dementia, including reduced anxiety and a decreased tendency to wander.
The latest research showed that Paro – a robotic seal invented by Japanese engineers and costing around $8,500 – could benefit people with dementia through reduced agitation and increased engagement.
“Our Paro study is the largest and most rigorous of any social robot study that has ever been undertaken anywhere,” Professor Moyle told Australian Ageing Agenda.
“Our study has shown an effect, albeit it a modest effect on agitation. This was our primary outcome and the most difficult of symptoms of dementia to reduce,” said Professor Moyle, who is program director at the Menzies Health Institute Queensland.
While the study findings supported the effectiveness of Paro, they also suggested that where there were limited resources, a soft toy animal may be used effectively with a person with dementia, she said.
Paro can respond to touch, temperature and voice and can learn its name.
Around 2,000 Paros are used around the world, including about 100 in Australia.
The National Health and Medical Research Council funded-study, which is the largest ever conducted of social robots, involved 415 residents aged 60-plus with a diagnosis of dementia from 28 residential care facilities in South-East Queensland.
One group interacted with Paro and another with a plush toy (a Paro with robotic features disabled) for 15 minutes three times a week for 10 weeks while a third group had routine care.
“People using Paro were significantly more verbal – talking more to Paro – and visually engaged – they looked at Paro when talking and interacting with Paro – than the other group having the plush toy,” Professor Moyle said.
Both the Paro and plush toy groups were more effective than usual routine care.
“This effect suggests that the robotics of the Paro had an effect on connection and engagement with Paro,” she said.
“The differences, however, were modest.”
Professor Moyle said the study suggested that dementia severity and level of agitation were characteristics that affected whether people engaged with Paro.
The residents in the study had a small dose of Paro or plush toy and it is possible that dose was too low, she said.
“Now that we have seen an effect, we need to concentrate on finding a larger effect through focusing on the characteristics of people we found benefited and also an increased dose of Paro.”
Paro in aged care
Professor Moyle said that Paro did not work with everyone and “should not be used as a mass intervention.”
Furthermore, Paro should be used when staff or family are busy and not as a substitute for human contact, she said.
“Staff need to fully understand how to use Paro and its technology before it can be effectively used with people with dementia.”
This story has been updated for accuracy.
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