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Why Virtual Pets Are Becoming a Staple in Senior Careby@bentphilipson
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Why Virtual Pets Are Becoming a Staple in Senior Care

by Bent PhilipsonOctober 14th, 2022
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The future of patient care depends on digitization. Smart beds play a critical role in patient safety and comfortability. Wearables more accurately track patient data and help to better inform patient diagnosis and care. And thanks to the recent pandemic, telehealth has expanded into the long-term care sector and is giving residents access to virtual care options they've never had before. The goal is to use the tactile touch of an animal, along with their movements and sounds, to stimulate a patient's movements and eliminate social isolation of loved ones.

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The future of patient care depends on digitization. Forward-thinking skilled nursing facilities and other long-term care centers are on the hunt for technology that won't only serve their residents but will enhance their overall operations as well.

Smart beds play a critical role in patient safety and comfort.

Wearables more accurately track patient data and help to better inform patient diagnosis and care.

And thanks to the recent pandemic, telehealth has expanded into the long-term care sector and is giving residents access to virtual care options they've never had before.

We're already pretty familiar with these technologies and their impact on the healthcare industry, but there's a lesser-known innovation that's working to combat a dangerous, and often deadly, side of senior care: senior isolation. 

The Senior Isolation Crisis

We know that feelings of isolation and loneliness begin to intensify with age and as a consequence of worsening physical ailments, like hearing loss or a recently diagnosed chronic illness.

But senior isolation is even more critical in elderly patients at skilled nursing facilities and other long-term care centers.

This has been an issue that's plagued the long-term care sector for a while now, and it can be a fatal problem.

Loneliness and isolation aren't only associated with higher levels of depression and anxiety in the elderly patient population, but research shows they put seniors at a 50 percent higher risk of dementia and a 29 percent higher risk of heart disease, while also increasing their susceptibility to infectious diseases and, worse, premature death.

SNFs and other long-term care centers have taken measures to curtail senior isolation, like organizing social events and encouraging family visitation hours.

However, these measures aren't enough to beget deep-rooted change, and the pandemic proved they aren't possible to do in the midst of a crisis because social activities only add to the risk of spreading infectious diseases, like COVID-19.

The loneliness epidemic, which was only made worse by the recent pandemic, has shown healthcare executives that combating senior isolation is just as important as updating their medical equipment or implementing digital tools that make patient data collection easier and more accurate.

Notice what those last two things have in common? They're only possible because of technological advancements.

If digitization can help enhance a patient's medical care, shouldn't it also be used to better all-around care as well?

This takes us back to the tech that is working to combat senior isolation. Introducing: virtual pets.

A Virtual Companion to Help With Longevity

We're no strangers to the benefits of animal companionship. If you've ever had a dog or cat, you know the level of happiness and comfort they bring is unmatched to human solace.

Except when it comes to long-term care environments, these furry friends aren't welcome — unless they're robots.

The New York State Office for the Aging was the first state to test how virtual pets impact senior isolation. After just one year of their trial, they found that 70 percent of participants reported feeling less isolated.

Other clinical studies established the same findings; robotic pets can help enhance a patient's well-being and quality of life, especially for those living with dementia and Alzheimer's

Virtual pets weren't initially designed for the elderly, but Hasbro's Vice President, Ted Fischer, soon realized the need for senior-friendly interactive pets after discovering that 10 to 15 percent of their FurReal Friends, which were intended for young children, were being purchased for older adults.

So, they launched their first virtual cat around three years ago, followed by a robotic dog one year later. 

To best serve elderly patients, these smart pets must offer both aesthetics and functionality.

The goal isn't to create a 'super' pet that can talk or do anything outside the norm, as it's important they still look and feel like a real animal.

Hasbro's Joy for All cats and dogs feature built-in sensors, brushable fur, and 'vibrapurr' and 'barkback' technology that makes their pets look and sound remarkably realistic.

The goal is to use the tactile touch of an animal, along with their movements and sounds, to stimulate a patient's brain and eliminate the loneliness and social isolation of being away from loved ones. 

Additionally, virtual pets also help to alleviate the stress on caregivers by helping to make their jobs a bit easier.

It not only gives patients something to do to keep their minds occupied, but these pets will soon be able to participate in a patient's care as well.

Similar to the technology that makes wearables so important to a patient's diagnosis and treatment, virtual pets may also be able to be programmed to notice a problem and wirelessly communicate an alert to a caregiver's phone or computer one day. 

While the idea of virtual pets may seem like a fun addition to a long-term care center, it's more than just entertainment for residents.

These robotic companions are just as critical to patient care as any other digital component.

And just like the other technologies that help to enhance your operations, virtual pets can also be used by your caregivers to support their daily tasks and responsibilities.

But most importantly, these lifelike pets can prevent the cognitive decline and premature death that is running rampant among isolated seniors.

The future of healthcare and patient care is digital, whether that's smart beds, wearables, telehealth, or virtual pets. They all play an important role in longevity.