Dec. 16 - A robotic baby seal is helping to spread Christmas cheer among elderly dementia patients in Hong Kong. Called ''Paro'', the robot is programmed to replicate a real animal, although there's nothing robotic about the joy it is bringing to the Lutheran Care Centre. Tara Cleary reports.
This fluffy robotic seal is a favourite with elderly dementia patients at the Lutheran Caring Centre in Hong Kong. Paro - short for personal robot - is controlled by inbuilt sensors that respond to touch, light, temperature and sound, replicating some of the behaviours of a real animal. Social worker, Chester Cheung says Paro has had an incredibly positive effect. SOUNDBITE: CHESTER CHEUNG, SOCIAL WORKER, SAYING (Cantonese): "Usually with dementia patients, we provide therapy by stimulating their senses using objects such as a plasma ball or things with different textures. Paro can stimulate their sense of hearing and touch. Moreover, because of its appearance, it can build a relationship with elderly people, liven up the therapy and make it less boring. It can also help them recall their previous experience of taking care of pets or even children." And that's exactly what Paro does for Lee Yau-fong, an 84-year-old patient with mild dementia and depression. SOUNDBITE: LEE YAU FONG, 84-YEAR-OLD PATIENT WITH MILD DEMENTIA AND DEPRESSION, SAYING (Cantonese): "Paro? Of course I like him, how can I not like him. Right? Paro, I pamper him even more than I pampered my dog in the past. Now I really pamper him. Right? Right? Isn't it right?" Animal-assisted therapy, often using dogs, aims to improve patients' social, emotional, or cognitive functioning. But chief of Shatin Hospital's geriatric unit, Dr. Elsie Hui, says robots are more convenient and cost effective. SOUNDBITE: CHIEF OF SERVICE, MEDICAL AND GERIATRIC UNIT, SHATIN HOSPITAL, DOCTOR ELSIE HUI, SAYING (English): "At my hospital we have pet volunteers coming on Sundays to visit our patients. But they are high maintenance. They need to be trained, and their owner usually needs to be present, and you have to take care of them." Eighty percent of the patients here say they feel happier after playing with Paro. After a day's activity, the robotic animal has to be charged. And residents say that even in its sleeping state, Paro has their seal of approval.