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NARCOG launches robotic pet project for isolated seniors

Through the help of two grants, the North Central Alabama Regional Council of Governments will be launching a new project to connect socially-isolated seniors with robotic pet companions.  

Complete with purrs, barks, heartbeats and fur, the robotic companion pets are set to serve seniors who are lacking interaction with family or friends or who are suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.  

Tennille Harkins, director of the Area Agency on Aging, said she is hopeful this new program will bring about positive change in the lives of local seniors. Harkins said NARCOG was able to secure 20 of the pets through a grant. 

“The goal is to see if we can reach those that are the most socially isolated and just see if these pets could help them with their health and their everyday wellbeing,” Harkins said.  

One of the advantages of the robotic pet versus a live animal is the pets require little maintenance and can be safer than live pets that might cause a tripping hazard for seniors.  

“Other than a battery, there is nothing else to it. It’s not a tripping hazard to our seniors, and they don’t have to worry about purchasing food to pay for the pet,” Harkins said. We are going to keep in touch with them, so if they do need a battery and can’t afford that battery, we will help replace it.  

So there is no mess with this pet. That’s a big benefit compared to a live animal. It’s just something to bring comfort with no mess and no clean up.” 

Harkins said NARCOG was inspired to purchase the pets after hearing of positive results from similar programs in New York and in another county in Alabama. She said the health benefits have been seen by both socially distanced seniors and those managing diagnoses of dementia.  

“We have even heard of someone in another county who had not spoken in months, and when she got the pet, she actually said ‘pretty’ – and that was the first time she had spoken in six months,” Harkins said.  

Though the program is still in the beginning stages, Harkins said there has already been a great response to the new pet project. NARCOG is currently accepting applications for the pets from seniors 60 and older who live alone or that have a dementiarelated diagnosis.  

“We have had a lot of seniors calling and wanting a pet. We have a lonely scale that we are completing, and then based on that score, we will try to get the loneliest people the pets,” Harkins said. 

Eligible seniors can apply for the pets by contacting NARCOG at 256-355-4515 and asking about the pet program. Harkins said her staff is hoping to begin processing the requests in mid-September. 

“We are all really excited about helping those seniors that don’t have family members and hoping maybe it changes their health,” she said. “I am really hoping this program works and that we are able to continue to grow it.”