Paro: The Therapeutic Robot Seal

Does Paro Help Elderly People?

Harp Seal

Have you seen Paro? 

Paro is an adorable robotic baby harp seal which weighs about 6 pounds. Paro was developed in Japan by Takanori Shibati and is equipped with 32-bit processors, microphones, and several tactile sensors. To boot, Paro's fur is fluffy and antibacterial.

Paro is a remarkable little gadget and able to recognize voices, track motions and utter endearing little squeaks and whistles. It also remembers behaviors, has touch-sensitive whiskers, which help it interact with humans, and has a bunch of little motors that enable it to wiggle.

In total, Paro has five types of sensors--light, tactile, auditory, temperature and posture--that help it come to "life."

Paro was built as a "pet alternative" and mainly intended for older people who desire company. (For more about pet-facilitated therapy click here.) A real pet can scratch or bite whereas all Paro places in its mouth is a pacifier it uses to recharge (awww!). To see Paro in action click here.

Although Paro has been sold in its native Japan and countries like Denmark for years, it really started to make headlines after it was introduced stateside. In fact, Paro was recently featured on Aziz Ansari's new Netflix series, "Master of None." Currently, a number of American nursing homes have purchased Paro for use with their residents.

However, in order to be worth its $5000 price tag, many believe that Paro must do more than act cute; it must also help people--particularly the elderly--feel better.

In that vein, let's look at the science supporting Paro's use.

In a 2014 study, Japanese researchers examined interactions between elderly nursing home residents with dementia and Paro as compared with these participants' interactions with Lion, a stuffed toy lion. The sample is this study consisted of 19 patients with mild dementia and 11 patients with severe dementia.

Here's what these researchers found:

  • Both participants with mild and severe dementia talked to Paro more than they talked to Lion.
  • Both groups of people showed more positive emotion and laughed more frequently around Paro than around Lion.
  • Participants with mild dementia were more likely to exhibit negative emotion with Lion than with Paro, suggesting less favorable interactions with a stuffed toy.
  • Participants with severe dementia were more likely to exhibit neutral reactions with Lion than with Paro, also suggesting less connection with the stuffed toy.
  • Members of the mild dementia group were more likely to interact with staff when Lion was around than when Paro was around, suggesting that Paro received more positive attention. 

Ultimately, the researchers suggest that Paro could serve as an effective icebreaker and help nursing home staff better help older people with illness.

Similarly, Dutch researchers examining the use of Paro among elderly people found that Paro could serve as a useful therapeutic tool when caring for older people. Specifically, Paro could be employed as a user-centered intervention to increase quality of care and quality of life among elderly people. However, these Dutch researchers were careful to stress that Paro is merely an aide and not a replacement for actual care provided by human caregivers.

You'd probably think that a cuddly robotic seal like Paro would have no detractors ... think again. Apparently, some experts worry that Paro is being used as a surrogate for care, support and companionship--roles that should be fulfilled by humans not robots. Instead, these experts argue that the role of robots should be more utilitarian and help with activities of daily living. For instance, in Japan robots have long been used to help elderly people eat and move.

Selected Sources

Article titled "Comparison of verbal and emotional responses of elderly people with mild/moderate dementia and those with severe dementia in responses to seal robot, PARO" by K Takayanagi and co-authors published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience in 9/2014.  Accessed on 12/22/2015.

Article titled "Effectiveness of Robot Paro in Intramural Psychogeriatric Care: A Multicenter Quasi-Experimental Study" by R Bemelmans and co-authors published in JAMDA in 2015.  Accessed on 12/22/2015.

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