Nursing homes fight isolation in lockdown with furry robots

Mardi Link Traverse City Record-eagle
Tuesday, April 6, 2021

EAST JORDAN, Mich. (AP) — Mary Ecker is one of about 100 elders who live at Grandvue Medical Care Facility, a county-owned nursing home a few blocks from the south arm of Lake Charlevoix.

Outgoing and naturally optimistic, Ecker has lived at Grandvue for 16 years. She’s happy there, yet said she feels nostalgic for the small farm in Burt, a four-corners near Saginaw, where she grew up.

She especially misses the family’s dogs.

“I’ve had dogs all my life,” Ecker told the Traverse City Record-Eagle. “If you would come in my room right now, you would see nothing but pictures of dogs. I like any kind of dog, but I favor the smaller ones.”

Ecker has had farm dogs, mixed breeds and a couple of miniature Chihuahuas — Lady and Muffin — but she’s never had a dog quite like her newest, Tigger.

Tigger is an animatronic, battery-operated interactive pet, specially designed by engineers with Joy for All, a division of a Rhode Island-based company, Ageless Innovation LLC, in order to provide companionship to residents of nursing homes.

In other words, Tigger is a robot.

There is a cat version, too, and a grant from the state’s Aging and Adult Services Agency funded a bulk purchase of 2,243 of the pets, 20 of which are going to Grandvue.

“We call it ‘The Companion Pet Adoption Project’ and I’ll tell you, its been a pretty great one to work on,” said Special Projects Coordinator Tammy Cordes. “There hasn’t been a lot of good news coming out of nursing homes lately.”

Staff at Grandvue echoes those thoughts, and said it wasn’t that long ago when people with all kinds of animals were welcomed inside for visits.

“Prior to the pandemic, we had a really vibrant Eden facility with a lot of pets coming in and out,” said Lisa Dunson, Grandvue’s activities director. “So this was definitely a wonderful addition since we haven’t been able to have visitors coming in and out like we did.”

Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services updated its residential care facilities order March 17, expanding visitation in conjunction with a testing protocol, though with state infection rates rising, Grandvue has taken a cautious approach.

They won’t open to visitation until the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid deems it safe to do so, information on their website states.

Elders miss their families, Dunson said, but they also miss family pets.

Dunson ticked off a list of animal visitors the facility has had in the past — dogs, cats, birds, a horse and even a chicken — all with the proper vaccination records on hand and which the Eden Alternative eldercare philosophy encourages, but COVID-19 put a halt to family visits, whether human or animal, she said.

The Eden Alternative is a philosophy of eldercare, developed in the 1990s, that pushes back against a focus on aging as a period of inevitable physical and mental decline, and instead asserts that people can learn and have new experiences at any age.

Grandvue is one of more than 20 Eden-registered facilities in Michigan, yet one of the only new experiences available to residents — staff prefers the term “elders” — during the pandemic has been learning to interact with a small, mechanical being covered with white, brown or gray fur.

The learning curve for that, said social worker Rebecca Verville, has been just long enough to give a number of staff members a lump in their throat.

“Finally,” Verville said, “some good news for our elders.”

The pets retail for between $109 and $129 each and Michigan’s Long Term Care Ombudsman Program made a bulk purchase of the pets with the grant funds, Cordes said.

Cordes said the project aims to help alleviate the isolation residents of nursing homes have experienced during the past year because of COVID visitation restrictions.

In order for a resident to qualify to receive a pet, he or she must be living with dementia or another cognitive impairment, or have expressed feelings of acute loneliness.

“Meaning, every single one of our elders could have qualified,” Verville said.

Twenty elders or their family members expressed an interest in participating, and Grandvue, with the help of Cordes, was able to provide a pet to anyone who wanted one.

The pets were ordered in mid-February and many, like Ecker’s, have already arrived.