Toy Story: What Happens When Those with Dementia Engage with a Robotic Stuffed Animal?

Robotic technology has been employed in a variety of ways, but perhaps the most cuddly implementation is in social robotic pets. One such pet that has received considerable attention is Paro the robotic baby seal, which has been advertised as being a potential tool for addressing negative symptoms often experienced by individuals with dementia. Recently, the first large-scale study of the impact of Paro on individuals with dementia compared Paro to an identical non-robotic stuffed animal and normal treatment.

This study included 415 participants with a dementia diagnosis from across 28 Australian long-term care facilities. Participants in the Paro and stuffed animal conditions had three individual, non-facilitated 15-minute sessions with the toys per week for a total of 10 weeks. The behavior of participants at the end of the study was then evaluated by coding video of the participants by individuals who were unaware of the condition to which they were assigned. This coding looked at levels of engagement, mood, and agitation.

Analysis of the videos showed that participants with Paro were more verbally and visually engaged than those with the stuffed animals. Compared to normal care, Paro alone was more effective in producing improving pleasure and reducing agitation. Both Paro and the stuffed animal conditions significantly reduced neutral emotions and improved pleasure significantly more than normal care. In other care conditions, the reported effect sizes were small except for visual engagement, which was described as “more pronounced.” The researchers also examined whether observed effects remained five weeks after the conclusion of the intervention, and found little evidence that the impact remained.

While overall, some significant effects were found for Paro, the effect sizes were modest, leading the researchers to conclude two things: 1) “When there are limited resources, a soft toy animal may be used effectively with a person with dementia,” and 2) “Paro should not be used to replace staff time, but rather be used during those inevitable periods when staff are otherwise occupied, or when the individual may benefit from comfort from Paro.”



Moyle W, Jones CJ, Murfield JE, et al. Use of a robotic seal as a therapeutic tool to improve dementia symptoms: a cluster-randomized controlled trial. Journal of the American Medical Directors Association (2017); Vol 18(9): 766–773.

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