Growing up on a farm in Scott County, then running a family dairy operation as an adult, Darlene Schmidt was always in the company of cats.
"Barn cats, house cats, inside and outside, there were kitties around," said her daughter Diane Nelson.
Now widowed and living in memory care in Shakopee, Schmidt, 86, still has a cat — one that meows, blinks and, when petted, vibrates slightly with a contented purr.
But this orange tabby is battery-operated.
"It looks a lot like a cat she once had," said Nelson. "When I took it out of the box, the look on her face was pure love. She petted and petted her."
Schmidt's Kitty is a robotic pet, one of a new breed of electronic cats and dogs that can pant, yawn, whine and wag; some even have an audible heartbeat. They have been designed specifically for older people, especially those with Alzheimer's disease or other forms of dementia. The lifelike animals can be soothing and can provide much needed companionship or a distraction from dislocation or pain.
And while mock pets have been around for a few years, interacting with them is proving to be particularly helpful during the pandemic, when many older people are isolating for their own safety.
Robotic pets offer an almost-real response to light, touch and sound. Employing motion detector technology, electronic animals are expressive; their software lets them turn their heads and make authentic noises, barking or mewing to react to their environment.
"Kitty sits on Mom's bed and when you walk into her room, she rotates her face to look at you," Nelson said. "Sometimes even when a car drives by outside her window, she will activate and meow."
For family caregivers and senior housing managers, offering the comfort of animatronic pets is hassle-free. Unlike meeting the demands of flesh-and-blood animals, the robotic ones don't require vaccines, never have to go to the vet and don't shed.
"When you have something like a community cat, there can be issues," said Christine McCutchan, life enrichment director at Tradition Independent and Assisted Living in Brooklyn Park. "Some residents have allergies or weren't raised with indoor cats and don't think they belong in the house. With these, there's no hair and no litter box so they're not hurting anyone," she said.
McCutchan said the lifelike pets, which can cost as little as $100, can bring real joy to residents.
"We have one resident who had to put her cat down in the last year. She's aware this cat is not real. She just likes to have it around."
Late last year, Tradition received two electronic cats and two golden Lab puppies courtesy of the city of Brooklyn Park, which allocated $2,200 in funds from the CARES Act to purchase pets (and batteries) for several senior living communities.
The city has dedicated funding for senior outreach as part of its membership in the AARP Network of Age-Friendly States and Communities, explained Kelly Mertes, Brooklyn Park recreation supervisor.
"We went with the robotic pets after hearing from staff in senior housing communities about the isolation, loneliness and longing for companionship," she said.
Across the nation, public agencies are investing in electronic animals for their therapeutic value. In New York, Alabama, Pennsylvania and Florida, agencies dedicated to the well-being of older citizens are piloting programs that purchase and distribute the pets.
The move follows a 2019 analysis of studies that concluded the animals are useful tools that "significantly" decrease common behavioral and psychological symptoms associated with dementia, especially agitation and depression.
"This is an inexpensive intervention that doesn't involve medication," said Lisa Wiese, professor at Florida Atlantic University's college of nursing.
Wiese supervised doctoral students in a project that gave electronic cats to cognitively impaired participants who attend an adult day program. Using standardized scales, researchers surveyed the participants three times over 12 weeks to track their quality of life.
"We saw an increase in positive emotions and alertness and a reduction of negative behaviors in more than half of the subjects," said Bryanna Streit LaRose, a geriatric nurse practitioner. "We heard about participants who slept with the cats. One participant had to be hospitalized and took it along. It was both a comfort and a distraction from the pain."
"One caregiver told us that it was life-changing for her mother. She had stopped speaking, but a week after she got the cat, she was talking to it," added doctoral student Melissa Johnston.
And it seems that the robotic pets benefit not only people with dementia. "Our research found the benefits of interacting with the robotic pets extend to the professional and family caregivers of people with dementia," said Wiese.
The researchers are now in the process of submitting their findings to a scholarly journal for nurses who specialize in geriatrics.
Even before lockdowns to prevent the spread of the coronavirus went into place, HealthPartners had begun offering animatronic cats to older members.
Starting in January 2020, the Bloomington-based insurance provider became one of the only health plans in the nation to offer the pets at no cost to those enrolled in its Senior Option plan.
About 160 cats were sent to policyholders last year. Eligibility to qualify for the benefit is expanding this year so that more members can qualify to receive a fake feline.
"Just like pets offer companionship, animatronic support also brings joy to senior members," said Brenda Anderson, HealthPartners care coordinator. "I have seen firsthand how much of a difference it can make."
Since the pandemic began almost a year ago, joy has been in short supply for many older people and those who love them.
Diane Nelson lives just blocks from her mother's memory care unit. Before COVID-19, she walked over to visit almost every day. Both mother and daughter struggled in the months when dropping in was forbidden, then limited.
"It just killed me to be so close and not see her," Nelson said. "No matter how old you get, you need to see your mom."
Nelson's mother hasn't left her building since last February and some of the activities she'd enjoyed there have been curtailed. That makes the unconditional love of the pet that Nelson purchased for her all the more valuable.
"Even though I think she knows it's not real, sometimes it feels real to her. When I can't be there, Kitty is there," she said. "When we're on the phone and she pets it, it rolls back and meows and Mom says, 'Kitty is talking to me.' It comforts her."
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer. This article was written with the support of a journalism fellowship from the Gerontological Society of America, the Journalists Network on Generations and the Silver Century Foundation.