Altho this article is aimed at the elderly lonely, I can see these robot cats being a comfort for almost anyone who is socially isolated.
What Robots Can—and Can’t—Do for the Old and Lonely
For elderly Americans, social isolation is especially perilous. Will machine companions fill the void?
By Katie Engelhart May 24, 2021
Many states are distributing animatronic pets to elderly residents.Illustration by Grace J. Kim
It felt good to love again, in that big empty house. Virginia Kellner got the cat last November, around her ninety-second birthday, and now it’s always nearby. It keeps her company as she moves, bent over her walker, from the couch to the bathroom and back again. The walker has a pair of orange scissors hanging from the handlebar, for opening mail. Virginia likes the pet’s green eyes. She likes that it’s there in the morning, when she wakes up. Sometimes, on days when she feels sad, she sits in her soft armchair and rests the cat on her soft stomach and just lets it do its thing. Nuzzle. Stretch. Vibrate. Virginia knows that the cat is programmed to move this way; there is a motor somewhere, controlling things. Still, she can almost forget. “It makes you feel like it’s real,” Virginia told me, the first time we spoke. “I mean, mentally, I know it’s not. But—oh, it meowed again!”
She named the cat Jennie, for one of the nice ladies who work at the local Department of the Aging in Cattaraugus County, a rural area in upstate New York, bordering Pennsylvania. It was Jennie (the person) who told her that the county was giving robot pets to old people like her. Did she want one? She could have a dog or a cat. A Meals on Wheels driver brought Virginia the pet, along with her daily lunch delivery. He was so eager to show it to her that he opened the box himself, instead of letting Virginia do it. The Joy for All Companion pet was orange with a white chest and tapered whiskers. Nobody mentioned that it was part of a statewide loneliness intervention.Published in the print edition of the May 31, 2021, issue, with the headline “Home and Alone.”Katie Engelhart, a National Fellow at New America, won the 2020 George Polk Award for magazine reporting. She is the author of “The Inevitable.”