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Coping with Dementia: Animatronics for Joy and Comfort

By Debbie Selsalvage Posted on November 17, 2020

“Animatronics!”  Wow, that’s a big word!  But wait, don’t be intimidated.  It’s simply a modern and high-tech version of something that has always worked so well for our loved ones living with dementia . . . Animal Therapy.

Anyone who has worked in health care knows how much joy and comfort dogs, cats, and other animals can bring to our seniors, whether or not they are living with dementia.  This is why a great many assisted living communities have a resident dog or cat.

But what if circumstances won’t allow your loved one to own and tend to a live pet?  This is when animatronic animals become an option.  These are puppet-like dogs or cats that can move and make sounds in response to voice or other outside stimuli.    

They range from a sleeping cat or dog that simply breathes, to highly complex models driven by motors, computers, and sensors that are quite realistic.  Prices can range from $40 to more than $200, depending on their sophistication. 

Let me give you just one example of how they work.  One day, just before one of my ABC of Dementia workshops, a young woman approached and said, “I want to apologize in advance.  I have brought my mother who has dementia, and I know she cannot possibly sit through the whole presentation.  I will learn what I can, but I am sure we will have to leave before it’s over.”

I picked up my little breathing cat and said, “May I meet your mother?”  I was introduced to her, and I said, “Would you watch my cat Penny during my presentation?”  The daughter looked shocked, and whispered to me, “That’s not real!”  I whispered back, “Maybe to you it’s not.”  In the meantime, mother had broken into a big smile as she took the animatronic cat out of my hands.

Throughout my presentation, the woman sat quietly and gently stroked the soft fur of the little breathing puppet.  She remained calm the whole two hours, and after the workshop her daughter said to me in astonishment, “My mother has not sat still that long in her whole life!”

Animatronic Animals make great Companions for Alzheimers Sufferers

Animatronic pets really work.  At my suggestion, many care partners who attend my support groups have acquired one for their loved one living with dementia.  They often laugh and joyfully share storied about how much their partners love their little pets. 

Animatronic pets do not have to be complex and expensive.  As I said, the simple “breathers” seem to be as effective as the more complex and expensive robotic type. 

Fortunately, at this time, thanks to a grant from the Alzheimer’s Association, you may be able to acquire your own animatronic companion pet for free from Florida Elder Options.  Here is the link for more information

About Debbie Selsavage

Debbie Selsavage is a Certified Trainer and Consultant in the Positive Approach to Care and a Certified Dementia Practitioner.  She authors a monthly column to assist caregivers in coping with Dementia. Her company, Coping with Dementia LLC is dedicated to making life better for individuals living with dementia.  Contact Debbie at [email protected].