Senior Citizens Are Getting Robotic Pets to Combat Loneliness: ‘There’s Somebody Here Listening to Me’

Animatronic stuffed animals are providing “companionship” to the elderly

<p>Ageless Innovation</p> An example of a robot pet

Ageless Innovation

An example of a robot pet

New York’s senior citizens are being given “robot pets” — animatronic stuffed animals — as part of an ongoing effort to combat what U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy has called an “epidemic of loneliness and isolation,” especially among the elderly.

The plush, battery-operated pets react to touch and sound, but don’t require feeding or care. They also won’t run out the front door, something that Helen Macura, 101, told ABC News was a concern of hers, as she lives on a busy street.

"I'm talking to somebody. I do have companionship. There's somebody here listening to me," she told the outlet of her animatronic dog, which she named Friendly. "He's warm and he's comfort."

“These plush, 'lifelike' robotic pets are designed to make realistic sounds and motions, providing comfort and companionship to individuals,” New York State’s Office for the Aging (NYSOFA) said of the initiative, which first started in 2018 and has since "distribute[d] over 31,000 animatronic pets to older adults who are assessed as being socially isolated."

As Greg Olsen, the acting director of NYSOFA, told ABC News, loneliness "can literally kill you.”

<p>Getty</p> Stock image of a senior citizen living alone.


Stock image of a senior citizen living alone.

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Loneliness, isolation, and lack of connection in our country” was labeled a “public health crisis” by the Surgeon General in 2023. “Our relationships are a source of healing and well-being hiding in plain sight — one that can help us live healthier, more fulfilled, and more productive lives,” Murthy said at the time.

“Given the significant health consequences of loneliness and isolation, we must prioritize building social connection the same way we have prioritized other critical public health issues such as tobacco, obesity, and substance use disorders,” he continued.

Murthy, who is a co-chair on the World Health Organization’s Commission on Social Connection, an initiative aimed at addressing “loneliness as a pressing health threat,” said loneliness is as bad for you as being a heavy smoker. "The mortality impact of being socially disconnected is similar to that caused by smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day," he said.

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Related: Senior Citizens Paint Portraits of Elderly Shelter Dogs to Help Pets Get Adopted

According to the NYSOFA, results of a 2018 pilot program for the animatronic pets "found that 70% of older adults receiving these pets reported a reduction/significant reduction in loneliness as well as a 75% decrease in pain." The study, the agency said, "was performed using the DeJong Loneliness Scale at different intervals of time (pre-adoption of the pets and at three, six, and 12 months)."

The pets, produced by Joy for All, are specially designed companions, and can come as cats, dogs and even tabletop birds — called “walker squawkers” — that can be affixed to a cane or walker.

The toys were “designed with extensive input from older adults,” the company said, and they respond to petting and hugging. The cats purr, and the dogs have a “heartbeat.”

Macura told ABC News every senior should have one.  "Especially the older senior citizens that are living alone," she said. "They should have companionship, good companionship."

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