The New York Times – Lou Ann Wyckoff cradled the gray-and-white cat in her lap. She scratched the back of its head and the cat purred, eyes closed. When she stopped petting the cat, it opened its green eyes and meowed for more.
“They are so sweet, they are so sweet,” said Ms. Wyckoff, a 79-year-old former opera singer. “The babies wake up and talk to the ladies, ‘Bring the babies.’”
Next to Ms. Wyckoff, a 99-year-old woman in a purple sweater stroked an orange-and-white cat. It rolled on its back, exposing its belly. Another woman, in a red sweater, ran her hand gently down her cat’s back, whispering to it in German.
The cats were actually cat-size robots. Their admirers were elderly residents of the Memory Care wing at Hebrew Home at Riverdale in the Bronx: people with varying degrees of dementia and Alzheimer’s.
On this recent Thursday morning, five cats circulated through the room, handed off by therapists from one resident to the next. “We’re using them to warm up the group space,” said Mary Farkas, the director of therapeutic activities at Hebrew Home.
Like some other nursing facilities, Hebrew Home is turning increasingly to robotic therapy pets to soothe the agitation and anxiety that often accompany dementia and Alzheimer’s. The home has long made use of therapy animals to reduce stress and isolation, “but at 3 in the morning if there’s someone who’s agitated on Memory Care, you’re not going to have an actual dog there,” said Wendy Steinberg, a spokeswoman.
The robotic cats, called Joy for All Companion Pets, are made by Hasbro. They hit the market last year and cost $99 — considerably less than previous generations of robotic therapy animals, which have been around since the dawn of the millennium. “No litter box. Just love,” the slogan on the Hasbro website says. The cats come in three models: orange tabby, creamy white and silver with white mitts.
Hebrew Home got its first one in March. Ms. Farkas tried it out on a resident in her late 70s who was searching in a panic for her long-deceased parents. Usually, someone in this situation would be given a tranquilizer. Instead, Ms. Farkas handed her a robotic cat. The woman calmed right down.
“She has her own cat now,” Ms. Farkas said.
Hebrew Home has since acquired 24 more, and there are plans for an additional 25, or possibly 50, she said.
Research on whether the benefits of robotic therapy pets are lasting is inconclusive, but in six months, Ms. Farkas said, she had seen many residents form close bonds with their animatronic friends.
“For a lot of our residents, it’s a chance to be a caregiver, and to be in an active, empowered role again,” she said. “A lot of times this disease causes passivity, and we’re always looking for ways to combat that.”
Kingsway Arms Nursing Center in Schenectady, N.Y., also got its first cat this year. “One of our residents was a little anxious and attempting to stand unsafely,” said Renee Markle, the recreation director. “We provided her with the cat, and for a good 45 minutes she sat and petted the cat and spoke to it in French, which is her native language. It was a beautiful sight.”
Like many patients with memory loss, Ms. Farkas said, the woman at Hebrew Home who now has her own cat is only intermittently aware that it’s a toy. It does not matter.
“Sometimes she believes it’s a real cat,” Ms. Farkas said. “Sometimes she just knows it’s a source of tremendous joy. For us, as long as it’s a source of tremendous joy, we just follow her narrative.”
At Hebrew Home that Thursday, multiple narratives were unfolding. Ms. Wyckoff was stroking her cat’s whiskers.
“He’s a good baby, a good baby,” Ms. Wyckoff said.
“You’re so caring, Lou,” Ms. Farkas told her.
“They are sweet dogs,” Ms. Wyckoff said. “The best thing is they’re here all day, and you can always come and find the babies. It’s a simple thing: You can love them and they love you back.”
Arlene Saunders, 86, another former opera singer, gave her cat a little tickle. “They’re adorable,” she said. “They don’t get anybody on their nerves” — she lifted an eyebrow conspiratorially — “or do they?” She leaned in close to her cat and crooned, “It’s up to you-oo!”
Justina LaCanfora, 97, was fascinated by the way her cat’s eyes shut when she stroked it between the ears.
“She just works them herself,” said Ms. LaCanfora, a former pianist and artist. “She must have some kind of mechanism inside.” The cat, she added, “feels real, and comfortable in my lap.”
“You’re my pussycat — do you love me?” Ms. LaCanfora asked the cat. It blinked slowly in response. “See that? ‘Do you love me?’” The cat blinked again.
A music therapist, Liisa Murray, entered the room while strumming an acoustic guitar and led the residents through “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’.” Ms. Wyckoff closed her eyes and sang to her cat, transported.
Across from her, a man in a wheelchair trembled violently and kept up a jabbering monologue. Even as he did, he repeatedly patted his cat on the head.
As the final “Oh, what a beautiful day!” died out, a chorus of meows was suddenly audible. Ms. Wyckoff opened her eyes.
“Where is the dog?” she said with a nervous laugh. “Where is he?”
“Where is he!” Ms. Murray said. “We’ve got the music, we’ve got the cats! Where’s the dog?”
“Don’t know where he went,” Ms. Wyckoff said.
“We’ll find him,” Ms. Murray assured her.
Image citation: Hasbro