The Wall Street Journal reported recently on a development in nursing home care that could be good for nursing home patients if it's used well: a socially interactive robotic baby seal. A robotic stuffed animal may seem like a strange substitute for real human interaction. But from my perspective as a Philadelphia nursing home negligence attorney, if the baby seal robot is used as a supplement to, rather than a substitute for, edifying interaction with staff and visitors, it could be a welcome source of enjoyment for nursing home patients.
The six-pound baby seal robot, called Paro, was invented five years ago by a Japanese robot manufacturer. Its electronic innards allow it to recognize and respond to voices, track people's movements with its head and eyes, bat its eyelashes and repeat behaviors that get a positive response. Danish nursing homes have invested in Paro robots since a 2008 study found that they soothed dementia patients and improved their communication. Here in Pennsylvania, a Pittsburgh nursing home has found that some of its residents interact with the robot as if it's a pet, and some staff find that the robot facilitates social interaction among residents. Marleen Dean, activities manager at Vincentian Home in Pittsburgh, said that Paro comforts dementia patients. "Some of our residents need more than we as human beings can provide... We've tried soft teddy bears that talk and move. But they don't have the same effect."
This robot sounds like a good alternative for centers that want the positive interactions of a pet but have practical concerns holding them back. But as a Pennsylvania nursing home abuse lawyer, I hope they it does not take the place of social interaction that's led and supervised by human staff members. Paro can be used as a substitute for pet therapy, but it seems cruel to deprive nursing home patients of interactions with real, live beings in favor of a more convenient robot. I would especially discourage nursing homes from relying on robots or pet therapy in place of adequate staffing with well-trained, qualified human beings to meet patients' needs. Everyone needs meaningful social interaction to stay mentally healthy. A robotic baby seal gives patients something to love, which is valuable, but it can't provide mentally stimulating conversation or a real relationship. Nor can it turn the eagle eye on patients' conditions that a human family member or friend might. And it is certainly no substitute for adequate care from a professional staff.