A lifelong lover of cats, Matilda Fichtenholz, cuddles with her current feline companion, “Spookums,” all day long. She carries the cat in her lap, strokes its soft fur, scratches its ears, and whispers affectionately to her cat, which purrs in return.
Except that her cat isn’t a real animal; it’s a robotic pet that provides companionship and comfort to Ms. Fichtenholz, 97, a United Hebrew resident who was diagnosed with dementia in 2015. Her little furry friend is one of 15 robotic feline companions used in the memory care facilities at United Hebrew, which include the Nightingale Neighborhood, Phoenix Neighborhood at Willow Towers Assisted Living, and Willow Gardens, the organization’s assisted living facility dedicated exclusively to Alzheimer’s and dementia care.
“Spookums is making a real difference,” notes Helen Griffin, Mrsl Fichtenholz’s daughter.
“My mother suffers from anxiety and is easily agitated. Her ‘cat’ has an incredible calming and comforting effect. This cat has changed her life.”
United Hebrew has always used pet therapy to help ease the agitation and anxiety that come with Alzheimer’s and dementia, according to Jerome Bagaporo, United Hebrew’s chief nursing officer. But the animatronic furry friends offer a very different experience.
“What’s special about these robotic pets is that unlike live animals who visit our campus, the mechanical cats can be constant companions, ready to comfort our residents at any moment,” he says. “They conjure memories of past pets, and help our residents connect to their desire to be nurturing. We’ve seen a real improvement in our residents who have them. They’re more engaged and feel a new sense of purpose.”
When an aging parent is diagnosed with dementia, it is often difficult for family members to adjust to their loved one’s cognitive decline, says Bagaporo. “Families have to find new ways to communicate with their parent, who is remembering less and less. These robotic pets can be a touchpoint for families.”
Ms. Griffin agrees, and says in that sense, the cat has been a gift to her as well. “She loves and nurtures her cat. She tells elaborate stories about her Spookums, which was actually the name of one of our cats growing up. So, we forge new connections.”