- September 9, 2020
During a seminar break at Windsor Reflections Memory Care in Lakewood Ranch, a cuddly, stuffed animal attracted attention by laying on a table and batting its big, round eyes.
It would have been a sweet trick for any Hasbro toy.
Calling this one a toy, though, would be like comparing a Matchbox car to a Mercedes. It took only a couple of seconds for those in attendance to understand.
Nicknamed "Hope," the stuffed, white seal seemed to be asking for attention. But when a camera with a flash tried to snap a few photos, Hope closed its eyes and buried its head.
Just an everyday, $6,000 stuffed animal ... one stuffed with technology.
"Hope has light and movement sensors," said Sandra Petersen, one of three licensed robotic therapists in the United States. "It can see you, and it doesn't like the flashing light.
"This device has artificial intelligence. It reads behavior. It thinks."
Hope "thinks" as much as a pair of 32-bit central processing units allow, and it does store information to develop a personality. In short, Hope can tell a person to get that flashing light out of its face.
In contrast, a few loving strokes of Hope's fur brings about a kind of seal purr, and creates an atmosphere of tranquility.
Petersen, a University of Texas Tyler professor, has studied the resulting tranquility for the past three years and has found what she hopes is a major breakthrough in treating senior patients who battle memory diseases such as dementia or Alzheimer's. Her findings have been so encouraging, Windsor Reflections, operated by Legends Senior Living, purchased a Paro Robotic Seal and will gather data to help Petersen with her stud. Hopefully, it will create a better life for its memory care patients. When it arrived at Windsor, the robotic seal was named "Hope."
Windsor Reflections hosted Petersen's Nov. 17 seminar, Neuroplasticity and Biofeedback in Dementia, for about 25 medical health professionals. Petersen said only Windsor Reflections and another Legends Senior Living facility in Palm Coast are using the robotic seal in Florida.
"It brings about a nurturing behavior," Petersen said of the seal. "It raises the serotonin level in the brain."
Serotonin is thought to be a contributor to feelings of well-being.
Petersen said a national study has shown about 60% of those 65 and older who are living in senior care facilities suffer from depression. Depression blocks attempts to improve memory functions.
"We have seen the robotic seal has helped with depression, aggression and anxiety," Petersen said. "It has helped people with their inability to communicate with the outside world."
In her studies, Petersen encountered one patient who hadn't spoken in six years. After several 20-minutes sessions with the seal, that changed. "He began talking to seal, saying 'I love you,'" Petersen said.
Windsor Reflections is intrigued.
"When I first looked at the seal, I thought, 'It's a stuffed animal,'" said Dawn Platt, a regional trainer for Legend Senior Living. "But then I saw how people reacted and interacted with it. I realized its potential to build relationships. Used on a routine basis, with environmental consistency, we feel it can build relationships, like someone's favorite pet. We have seen it increase verbalization and decrease aggressive behavior. It calms people."
It only took a few moments during the seminar to understand. Those in the medical field at the seminar broke into wide smiles as they passed Hope around the room.
"I want us to buy one," said Michelle Orlando, the associate director of Home Health Care. "It be huge if it leads to a reduction in medication."
Petersen said the effect in terms of medication is undeniable.
"We have found it absolutely decreases the amount of psycho-active medication needed," Petersen said. "It can reduce it by a third. That's anti-anxiety drugs and anti-depression drugs."
Petersen has found those interacting with the robotic seal also have been able to decrease their pain medication.
A few years ago, Petersen, now 62, was driving in Dallas when she began drooling. She suffered a stroke, and in the aftermath, she had difficulty recalling words and tapping into her language center.
"It was one of the best things that could have happened to me to help take care of seniors," she said.
She said she understands the problems and the frustrations her memory care patients encounter.
Now dedicating herself to helping seniors with memory challenges, Petersen is hoping more facilities adopt the robotic seal.
"The seal is a neutral animal, weighing about the same as a baby," she said. "That transfers an immediate message, that this is something to be held and nurtured."
The inventor originally designed a dog and a cat, and both failed miserably. "People have expectations of dogs and cats," Petersen said.
Each seal has a life span of about 10 years, although Petersen said a new processing unit can be purchased to extend life.
It has light, movement and audio sensors from "whiskers to tail." It's fur is infused with silver, which acts as an antibacterial agent.
The robotic seal is being used in 33 countries. Less than 100 are being used in the United States, and most of those are being used by the government.
"We tend to go to pills here first," Petersen said.
Not everyone is completely sold on the Hope.
Dr. Louis Soscia, a retired physcian who lives in Lakewood Ranch, has been watching as his wife, Diana, has been treated for Alzheimer's at Windsor Reflections, which introduced Hope to her in 20-minute sessions.
"They used it a few times, and she seemed to take to it," Soscia said. "I think she enjoyed the experience, but I don't know. I think it shows promise. This has been a new type of experience with no real trial situations. The parameters have not been set up."
Whether Hope is successful, Soscia said he appreciates Windsor Reflections' attempt to be innovative. "They stay current with the modern world," he said. "This is a good place. They are very caring."
Windsor Reflections resident John Dack spent 20 minutes with Hope on Nov. 17, and if nothing else, he certainly enjoyed the interaction.
Dack was asked if he thought Hope was a male or female.
"I don't know," Dack with with a laugh. "I've haven't looked yet."