A New Zealand aged care trust has been lauded for its use of a robotic fur seal 'colony' that helps dementia patients.

Hilda Johnson-Bogaerts, general manager of the Selwyn Institute for Ageing and Spirituality, said charitable trust the Selwyn Foundation won a NZ Aged Care Association innovation award for the use of its PARO baby Canadian harp seal robots, in use at Point Chevalier's Selwyn Village in Auckland and elsewhere.

A PARO fur seal robot, in use in retirement villages in New Zealand.
A PARO fur seal robot, in use in retirement villages in New Zealand.

"For people with mild or advanced dementia who are distressed, withdrawn or lonely, interaction with the companion seals can help reduce their anxiety levels and improve their mood," she said.

"The unique appearance of the robot also prompts residents to converse more with caregivers and each other about what PARO is, what he can do and what he looks like. It therefore stimulates greater social activity and more meaningful conversation and so residents are less lonely as a result," she said.

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Selwyn has 13 robots, used on a one-to-one basis and in group settings in Auckland, Hamilton and Whangarei, as well as with clients of its dementia day centres.

"The seals are not a replacement for human contact, but another type of aid that enables us to care for our residents," Johnson-Bogaerts said. The robots would never replace personal interaction, "but our experience shows that there is a place for such assistive technology in aged care," she said.

A Selwyn spokesperson said the robots were initially on trial.

"Following the success of the trials that were undertaken in 2013 by Auckland University with rest home residents at Selwyn Heights village, we acted on the findings and now have a total of 13 seals which we are using throughout our rest homes, hospitals and dementia day centres to achieve a variety of positive outcomes for those who may be distressed, withdrawn or lonely.

"We are the first residential aged care provider to have used this form of diversional therapy in New Zealand, and we have wonderful insights into the benefits for residents in terms of reducing anxiety levels, improving mood and increasing residents' social interaction and conversation with caregivers and with other residents," the spokesperson said.

Selwyn's award recognised effort by an aged care provider to enhance the standard of care provided to residents through innovation, creativity or redesign of service delivery.

PAROBOTS says its baby fur seals have five kinds of sensors: tactile, light, audition, temperature and posture. Those enable the robot to perceive people and its environment.

"With the light sensor, PARO can recognise light and dark. He feels being stroked and beaten by tactile sensor, or being held by the posture sensor. PARO can also recognise the direction of voice and words such as its name, greetings, and praise with its audio sensor.

"PARO can learn to behave in a way that the user prefers, and to respond to its new name. For example, if you stroke it every time you touch it, PARO will remember your previous action and try to repeat that action to be stroked. If you hit it, PARO remembers its previous action and tries not to do that action.

"By interaction with people, PARO responds as if it is alive, moving its head and legs, making sounds, and showing your preferred behaviour. PARO also imitates the voice of a real baby harp seal," PAROBOTS says.