In her room at United Hebrew in New Rochelle, within the assisted living facility’s memory care Nightingale Neighborhood, Matilda Fichtenholz likes to sit with the cat on her lap. She enjoys petting it softly, scratching behind its ears and reminding the cat that he’s a good boy.
Though he may meow periodically, and though his chest rises and falls to simulate breathing, the object of her affection is not actually a cat. Instead, it is a robot designed to serve as a companion for the 98-year-old resident.
“She named him Spookums, which is the name of a cat she had when she was 40 years old,” said Helene Griffin, Fichtenholz’s daughter. “She has always adored cats, so this really hit the sweet spot for her.”
“Spookums” is one of 15 robots used by United Hebrew in New Rochelle to offer companionship to elderly residents of the senior living facility.
“Our residents put them on their lap, they kiss them, they talk to them,” said Jerome Bagaporo, chief nursing officer at United Hebrew. “One of our residents wants her cat to lay on the side table when she sleeping.“
Griffin said the cat has had a transformative effect on her mother, who, like many dementia patients, is easily agitated and suffers from anxiety.
“This cat just has an incredibly calming effect and is totally comforting to her,” she said. “It changed her focus from her suffering, her misery, her asking ‘Why am I here?’ to talking about this cat all the time.”
Created by toy company Hasbro, these robotic cats can also give elderly residents a sense of purpose by having something tangible to take care of.
“That’s a great feeling for someone who may feel a loss of control and confusion as their disease progresses,” said Rita Mabli, president and CEO of United Hebrew. “The cats are amazingly life like and some of our residents with dementia believe they are real, and that’s okay. They nurture and care for their cats and have fun with them.”
“The cats are amazingly life-like, and some of our residents with dementia believe they are real, and that’s okay.”
While the facility uses living, breathing pets as a therapy method to calm the agitation that often accompanies Alzheimer’s and dementia, the robotic animals are able to serve as a constant companion, no matter the hour.
“(Living pets) are not something that are accessible or ready at anytime, especially in the evenings, when signs and symptoms of dementia are more prevalent,” Bagaporo said. “These cats are readily available and they give them a new sense of purpose, which makes them more engaged.”
The robotic animals also serve as a way to open up the lines of communication between patients and their loved ones.
“It actually gives the family a new touchpoint, so they can engage in conversations,” he said. “They can start conversations about what the cat is doing.”
For Griffin, the new means of communication with her mother has been life changing.
“We were able to talk about the cat,” Griffin said, adding that sometimes her mother would tell her the cat had run away earlier but ultimately returned, or that he was being an especially good boy that day. “It was just a way for us to talk.”
Griffin said that many of the stories her mother shared were memories of her own life and her history as a longtime cat owner.
“This wasn’t a surprise that she would relate to the cat, but it was a surprise how much it sort of changed her from being sort of cranky and anxious to just focused on talking about this cat,” she said.
United Hebrew’s robotic cat program is just one of many of its complementary care practices, which range from robotic babies to art and dance therapy programs.
“Nonpharmacological methods are often as effective or more effective than drug therapies, which may have adverse effects, depending on the individual’s other medical conditions,” Mabli said. “Research supports our experience at United Hebrew, which is that addressing lifestyle factors such as physical activity, social interactions and diet, can have a powerful effect on many of the chronic conditions we experience as we age.”
These methods are increasingly gaining popularity in the eldercare space and are frequently seen as a complement, or even an alternative, to pharmacological treatments.
Like at United Hebrew, dance therapy is used as a way to engage residents with Alzheimer’s or dementia at the Wartburg, the Mount Vernon provider of senior care services. Gardening groups help forge a sense of purpose for residents of The Westchester Center for Independent and Assisted Living in Yonkers. Other commonly used practices range from meditation and yoga to aromatherapy.
Care providers say these nonpharmacological services are especially important for the ailments that can’t be relieved by prescriptions or medication.
“The emotional pain and spiritual needs, we can’t always address those with pills or other therapies,” said Carol Townsend-Ross, director of clinical services at Hospice of Westchester.
Through its Anna and Louis Shereff Caregiver and Complementary Care Program, Hospice of Westchester provides therapies including massage, Reiki, reflexology, pet therapy and even a doula at no cost to patients.The program also offers art therapy, which allows patients and their families to use water colors or acrylic paints to help express their feelings.
“If a patient has upper torso strength and they want to draw with pastels, we will do that too,” Townsend-Ross said. “It’s a nice diversion.”
The White Plains-based nonprofit recently teamed up with the Music Conservatory of Westchester to provide music therapy services to its end-of-life patients.
“We find music is very effective in relieving physical and emotional and spiritual needs,” Townsend-Ross said. “What happens is the music tends to reduce feelings of isolation, fear and loneliness, and it gives the patient a different focus for the amount of time the music therapist is there.”
Similar to the robotic cat program at United Hebrew, music therapy can also open up the lines of communication between patients, their families and caregivers.
“Music, being universal, will help them identify things in the past where they had maybe a feeling of happiness,” she said. “That can help our interdisciplinary team open up that door to talk about their end of life journey.”
Techniques used in music therapy sessions vary depending on each patient’s needs, preferences and goals, said Julie Sherwood, a faculty member of Music Conservatory of Westchester, who is a licensed creative arts therapist and board-certified music therapist.
“Active interventions may include a patient playing instruments or singing with the therapist,” she said. “This might include familiar patient-selected songs, or patients might create their own music, either with or without lyrics.”
Talking about the lyrics or themes in the music can also serve as an opening for discussion of deeper feelings or concerns, Sherwood said. “It is also common to use music to engage in life review, where songs are used to help patients reconnect with memories of meaningful events and important relationships.”
Other sessions can involve the therapist using music to help an elderly patient relax.
“Rhythm can be used in specific ways to help regulate labored breathing and facilitate increased comfort and relaxation,” Sherwood said.
These music therapy sessions aren’t just for hospice patients, she said.
“Often, family members enjoy participating in music therapy sessions. “This gives them an opportunity to share a relaxing and uplifting experience with their loved one and promotes a deeper sense of connection.”